How Maryland Courts Interpret Ambiguities in the Workers’ Compensation Act

 In Light of its Benevolent Purpose and Remedial Nature, the Act Should Be Interpreted in Favor of the Injured Worker in Instances of Ambiguity.

The year 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the enactment of Maryland’s original Workers’ Compensation Act.[1]  Today, the Act is codified in Title 9 of the Labor and Employment Article of the Maryland Code.[2]  Despite numerous modifications and amendments, the present Act retains the original’s underlying purpose and goals.[3]  Recently, the Court of Appeals of Maryland reiterated:

We have stated [the Act’s] purpose as being “to protect workers and their families from hardships inflicted by work-related injuries by providing workers with compensation for loss of earning capacity resulting from accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment,” and “to promote the general welfare of the State and to prevent the State and its taxpayers from having to care for injured workmen and their dependents, when under the law as it previously existed, such workmen could not recover damages for their injuries.” Consistent with this purpose, we have repeatedly emphasized the Act’s remedial nature and that it “should be construed as liberally in favor of the injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes.”[4]

Ambiguities found within Title 9 of the Labor and Employment Article are resolved consistent with the procedure used for other areas of the Maryland Code.[5]  An ambiguity arises where a particular statute or provision therein is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.[6]

The primary goal of a court charged with interpreting a statute is to effectuate the intentions of the legislature.[7]  Courts are first required to give a statute’s text its literal and plain English meaning, and when doing so provides for but one reasonable interpretation, the inquiry necessarily reaches its end.[8]  Only where the plain English is subject to multiple readings will courts draw on secondary considerations.[9]  Classic principles of statutory construction include considering legislative history, prior case law, common law and the statute’s underlying purpose or goals.[10]  Though not dispositive, dictionaries may also be “useful starting points.”[11]

Dictionary Definitions May be Useful but are Not Dispositive.

Two recent Maryland decisions reflecting how courts utilize dictionaries while addressing statutory ambiguities in the Workers’ Compensation Act are Stachowski v. Sysco Food Serv. of Baltimore, Inc. and Montgomery County v. Deibler.[12]  In both cases, the Act’s ambiguities were resolved in favor of the injured worker, which was consistent not only with precedent, but with the statute’s underlying remedial purpose.[13]

In Stachowski, the Court of Appeals was tasked in determining whether “payment,” as described in L&E § 9-736(b)(3)(iii), occurred upon the receipt of a disability check or upon its mailing.[14]  The issue arose for purposes of the Act’s statute of limitations, which allowed a claimant to seek reconsideration of an award within five years of “payment.”[15]  The court held that payment occurred upon the receipt, rather than on the date of mailing.[16]  This decision reversed the earlier rulings of the WCC, circuit court and Court of Special Appeals, which had all concluded that payment was complete upon the date of mailing.[17]  The reversal was supported by both the dictionary definition of payment, in addition to the term’s usage elsewhere in Maryland law.[18]

In 2011, the Court of Appeals relied on Stachowski in its opinion in Deibler.[19]  There, the ambiguity arose because the Act failed to define the term “wage earning capacity,” as described in L&E § 9-615.[20]  Specifically, the issue was whether the legislature intended the term to encompass overtime compensation.[21]  Because L&E § 9-615 was silent in regard to overtime work, the court had to “look past the plain language of the Act and employ all the resources and tools of statutory construction at [its] disposal.”[22]

As was done in Stachowski, the court in Deibler consulted a dictionary in hopes of resolving the ambiguity.[23]  The court discovered that the term “wage” generally referred to most, if not all, forms of renumeration, which clearly encompassed overtime compensation.[24]  However, the court noted that dictionary definitions are not dispositive of legislative intent, and thus sought to compare the dictionary’s definition with the term’s usage elsewhere in the Maryland Code, as was also done in Stachowski.[25]

Because the term “payment” did not appear anywhere else in the Workers’ Compensation Act, the Stachowski Court looked to the Maryland Commercial Code for comparison to the dictionary’s definition.[26]  In Deibler, however, the court did not have to search outside of the Labor and Employment Article, as multiple areas therein also mentioned the term “wage.”[27]  From that, the court found the usage of “wage” to be in accordance with the dictionary.[28]  As such, the court held that overtime compensation was a valid consideration under L&E § 9-615.[29]

Principles of Statutory Construction Prohibit Interpreting Provisions of the Act in Isolation

In 2013, the Court of Appeals of Maryland was yet again tasked with resolving a Title 9 ambiguity.  In Montgomery County v. Robinson, the court held that scheduled and non-scheduled losses arising from a single accidental injury may be combined for purposes of calculating permanent partial disability at any level; i.e. for all three “tiers” of compensation.[30]

The issue arose in light of L&E §§ 9-629 and 9-630, the former dealing with disability compensation in the range of 75-250 weeks, and the latter for 250 weeks and above (also known as serious disability).  Specifically, L&E § 9-630 expressly allowed combining scheduled and non-scheduled injuries for the purpose of attaining serious disability, whereas L&E § 9-629 was silent as to whether such a combination was permissible for a tier two award.[31]

The court determined that L&E § 9-629 was ambiguous, as it could be reasonably interpreted as allowing or precluding combining scheduled and non-scheduled injuries in order to attain a tier two award.[32]  Prior to reaching the court, the WCC had awarded compensation under L&E § 9-629 for a hand/wrist injury (a scheduled loss), as well as for a back injury (a non-scheduled loss).[33]  The County appealed the ruling and argued that because L&E § 9-630 expressly provided for the combination of scheduled and non-scheduled losses, the silence in L&E § 9-629 reflected that the Maryland General Assembly intended that such combinations be disallowed.[34]

The Court of Appeals noted that the case was one in which a statutory ambiguity arose because of, and was resolved in light of, an independent aspect of the Act that was not specifically at issue.[35]  That is, the issue in the case pertained to tier two awards, but arose solely because of the tier three statute. Because Maryland courts are mindful of the need for coexistence within an overarching statutory scheme, the Robinson Court explained:

In determining whether the statute is clear or ambiguous, “[w]hen the statute is part of a larger statutory scheme, it is axiomatic that the language of a provision is not interpreted in isolation; rather, we analyze the statutory scheme as a whole considering the ‘purpose, aim, or policy of the enacting body.’” Moreover, we interpret statutes within a statutory scheme with reference to one another even if the statutes were enacted at different times and do not refer to each other. We attempt, in that regard, to harmonize the statutes with each other and within the scheme without rendering any language or portion of the statutes meaningless, surplusage, superfluous, or nugatory.

Section 9–629 is, when viewed in isolation, clear enough. There is nothing in the statute that prohibits the combining of awards, scheduled and for “other cases,” to justify an award at the compensation level it prescribes. Ambiguity as to whether compensation awards may be combined surfaces only when § 9–629 is compared with § 9–630, which governs compensation for the most serious permanent partial disabilities. That section expressly authorizes the Commission to combine awards resulting from a single accident in order to bring a claimant within its terms, entitling the claimant to enhanced benefits.[36]

To that end, the County argued that interpreting L&E § 9-629 to allow for a combination of injuries in line with L&E § 9-630 would result in rendering the legislature’s express authorization for purposes of serious disability “surplusage.”[37]  In response, the court posited:

To be sure, the petitioners’ interpretation of § 9–629 as not permitting the combining of awards to make a claimant eligible for the enhanced benefits it provides does give effect to the “or a combination of awards” language in § 9–630 and avoids its being mere surplusage. On the other hand, it does not make the intent of the General Assembly in enacting § 9–629 in the form that it did clear, or stated differently, account for the apparent conflict between it and § 9–630. Moreover, their interpretation does not give effect to the remedial nature and purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act.[38]

The court also noted that the language for tier two compensation “is quite broad and does not delineate or characterize . . . the injuries that would qualify the claimant for that level of compensation.”[39]  As such, the court held that the lack of express authorization in L&E § 9-629 fails to “conclusively establish that it was the General Assembly’s intent to prohibit the combining of awards . . . . This is especially so because to interpret § 9–629 as prohibiting the combining of awards when such combination is expressly sanctioned in § 9–630 would lead to strange, unfair, and, therefore, illogical results.[40]

Finally, Robinson concluded by asserting that precedent “required” holding that award combinations be allowed in “all” cases of permanent partial disability.[41]  This is because a hallmark of statutory construction mandates consideration of a statute’s underlying purpose.[42]  Again, the Workers’ Compensation Act is “remedial” in nature, which has prompted Maryland courts to repeatedly emphasize “that it ‘should be construed as liberally in favor of the injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes.’”[43]  The court found the County’s position to “undercut” the Act’s remedial nature, and accordingly interpreted the statutory ambiguity in favor of the injured employee.[44]


[1] See Montgomery County v. Robinson, 435 Md. 62, 82 (2013).

[2] Id. at 71 (“[i]n 1991, as part of Code revision, the Legislature re-codified the Workers’ Compensation statute as Title 9 of the Labor and Employment Article.”).

[3] Id. at 82.

[4] Id. at 82-83 (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[5] See Ocean City Police Dept. v. Marshall, 158 Md. App. 115, 121 (2004) (citing Montgomery County v. Stevens, 337 Md. 471 (1995)).

[6] See Robinson, 435 Md. at 76-83.

[7] Id. at 76-77 (quoting Dep’t of Health & Mental Hygiene v. Kelly, 397 Md. 399, 419 (2007)).

[8] Id. at 77 (quoting Burnside v. Wong, 412 Md. 180, 194 (2010)).

[9] Id. (quoting People’s Ins. Counsel Div. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 408 Md. 336, 352 (2009)).

[10] Id.

[11] Montgomery County v. Deibler, 423 Md. 54, 67 (2011) (internal citation omitted).

[12] See id. at 65-66 (discussing Stachowski, 402 Md. 506 (2007)).  See also Board of Educ. of Prince George’s County v. Marks-Sloan, 428 Md. 1, 28 (2012).

[13] Deibler, 423 Md. at 65-66 (discussing Stachowski, supra).

[14] Stachowski, 402 Md. at 511-12.

[15] Id. at 511.

[16] Id. at 531.

[17] See id. at 511.

[18] Id. at 526.

[19] Deibler, 423 Md. at 65-66 (discussing Stachowski, 402 Md. 506 (2007)).

[20] Id. at 67-68.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 62-63 (quoting Reier v. State Dep’t of Assessments & Taxation, 397 Md. 2, 26-27 (2007)).

[23] Id. at 65-67 (citing Stachowski, 402 Md. 506 (2007)).

[24] Id. at 68-69.

[25] Deibler, 423 Md. at 69 (internal citations omitted).  See also Board of Educ. of Prince George’s County v. Marks-Sloan, 428 Md. 1, 31-32 (2012).

[26] Deibler, 423 Md. at 65-66 (citing Stachowski, 402 Md. 506 (2007)).

[27] Id. at 69-71.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] 435 Md. 62 (2013).

[31] Robinson, 435 Md. at 76.

[32] Id. at 77-78.

[33] Id. at 74.

[34] Id. at 76.

[35] Id. at 77-78.

[36] Id. (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[37] Robinson, 435 Md. at 79-80.

[38] Id.

[39] Id. at 81.

[40] Id. at 81.

[41] Id. at 83 (citing Design Kitchen & Baths v. Lagos, 388 Md. 718, 724 (2005)) (“[g]iving effect to the remedial nature of the Workers’ Compensation Act and applying the Design Kitchen logic to the cases sub judice requires us to hold that § 9–629 allows awards for scheduled and unscheduled losses to be combined. Such a holding harmonizes that statute and § 9–630 within the larger statutory scheme by providing that the combination of permanent partial injury awards is appropriate in all cases.”).  In Design Kitchen, the Court of Appeals held “that an undocumented alien is a covered employee under the Act even though the statutory scheme makes no reference to an undocumented alien being a covered employee.”  See id.  In Robinson, the court relied on Design Kitchen in support of the contention that ambiguities in the Workers’ Compensation Act are to be resolved in favor of the employee.  Id.

[42] Deibler, 423 Md. at 61 (citing Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-101(b)(1)).

[43] Robinson, 435 Md. at 82-83 (internal citations omitted).

[44] Id. at 83.