In Maryland, any “interested” party can appeal the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Commission (hereinafter “WCC” or “the Commission”) “within 30 days after the date of the mailing of the Commission’s order.” Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-737 (hereinafter “LE”). The procedure for WCC appeals is set forth in LE § 9-745 and states as follows:
(a) The proceedings in an appeal shall:
(1) be informal and summary; and
(2) provide each party a full opportunity to be heard.
(b) In each court proceeding under this title:
(1) the decision of the Commission is presumed to be prima facie correct; and
(2) the party challenging the decision has the burden of proof.
(c) The court shall determine whether the Commission:
(1) justly considered all of the facts about the accidental personal injury, occupational disease, or compensable hernia;
(2) exceeded the powers granted to it under this title; or
(3) misconstrued the law and facts applicable in the case decided.
(d) On a motion of any party filed with the clerk of the court in accordance with the practice in civil cases, the court shall submit to a jury any question of fact involved in the case.
(e) (1) If the court determines that the Commission acted within its powers and correctly construed the law and facts, the court shall confirm the decision of the Commission.
(2) If the court determines that the Commission did not act within its powers or did not correctly construe the law and facts, the court shall reverse or modify the decision or remand the case to the Commission for further proceedings.
Once an interested party files a Petition for Judicial Review, the matter always proceeds to the circuit court. The case may then operate differently at the circuit court level than would other types of administrative appeals. Although not expressly stated in the statute, case law has expounded significantly upon the process for reviewing a case out of the WCC under LE § 9-745. Specifically, there are two different modalities of appellate review in the circuit court: 1.) a “routine administrative appeal” under LE § 9-745(c); and 2.) an “essential trial de novo” pursuant to LE § 9-745(d).
Maryland courts, including the Court of Appeals, often rely on the intermediate appellate court’s opinion in Board of Education for Montgomery County v. Spradlin, 161 Md. App. 155 (2005) for an explanation of the differing methods of appellate review available in workers’ compensation cases. See, e.g., Elms v. Renewal by Anderson, 439 Md. 381, 390, n. 5 (2014). Accordingly, the following provides a summation of both a “routine administrative appeal” and an “essential trial de novo,” as described (in much more detail) by Jude Moylan’s opinion in Spradlin.
Routine Administrative Appeal
Appeals under LE § 9-745(c) are known as “routine administrative appeals” because they proceed in the same fashion as would any other appeal from an administrative agency. This modality of appellate review is also commonly referred to as “an appeal on the record” because, “[a]s with appeals from other administrative agencies, the judge reviews the record of the proceeding before the Commission and decides, purely as a matter of law, whether the Commission acted properly.” Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 167. There is no new evidence and no live witnesses; rather, the circuit court judge decides the case solely on the transcript derived from the earlier WCC hearing. Id. at 170.
As reflected above, LE § 9-745(c) requires consideration of three factors, which the Court of Appeals has described as a review for “legal correctness.” If a circuit court finds the Commission’s ruling to be legally correct, LE § 9-745(e) mandates that the decision be affirmed. For this reason, analysis under LE § 9-745(c) is “limited,” in that a circuit court is bound to affirm legally correct decisions, even if the court would have ruled differently de novo. See Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 167-169. Moreover, subsection (c) “is an appeal to the judge alone, and, even then, only in his capacity of a legal referee and not in the capacity of a fact finder.” Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 167. In other words, the court reviews only questions of law, rather than issues of fact.
Although LE § 9-745(c) authorizes the court to consider whether the WCC “misconstrued the facts,” the inquiry is essentially a question of law. Id. at 174-75 (quoting Montgomery Ward v. Bell, 46 Md. App. 37, 42-43 (1980)). More specifically, the circuit court applies the “substantial evidence test” when analyzing the WCC’s factual findings and asks “whether the Commission’s fact-finding was, as a matter of law, clearly erroneous because not supported by legally sufficient evidence.” Id. at 169. If there is any reasonable basis for the WCC’s factual conclusions, the circuit court must accept them as its own.
Essential Trial De Novo
While not expressly stated, LE § 9-745(d) provides for de novo review of the WCC’s decision in the circuit court. Although subsection (d) only mentions the right to review by jury, Maryland case law has repeatedly made clear that such review is also available via a court trial. Additionally, regardless of which party actually appeals the decision below, either may demand a de novo evidentiary hearing whenever a genuine issue of fact exists.
Similar to how “routine administrative appeals” pertain only to questions of law, “the trial de novo is concerned only with findings of fact.” Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 173. Furthermore, whereas review under subsection (c) is bound by the Commission’s factual conclusions unless clearly erroneous, de novo review allows the court to draw its own inferences from the evidence, irrespective of the findings below. Thus, the directives in LE § 9-745(e) that mandate affirmation of the WCC if legally correct are wholly inapplicable when the court is proceeding under subsection (d). Id. at 173-74 (quoting General Motors v. Bark, 79 Md. App. 68, 76 (1989) (“The statutory direction to affirm an error-free Commission decision would not apply, however, to the alternative appeal mode of de novo trial. Indeed, once the circuit court embarks upon its de novo fact-finding mission, it is totally unconcerned with whether the Commission ‘correctly construed the law and facts’ or not.”) (emphasis in Spradlin)).
This modality is “essentially” a trial de novo, rather than a true trial de novo, for a number reasons.
A true trial de novo, of course, would put all parties back at “square one,” to begin again before the circuit court just as if the adjudication appealed from had never occurred. In what is “essentially a trial de novo,” by contrast, that is by no means the case. The past is not erased, but may serve as prologue to the upcoming result in no less than four respects. The decision of the Commission, far from being relegated to the archives, 1) may be offered as substantive evidence before the de novo fact finder; 2) may be the subject of a jury instruction at the de novo trial; 3) may, if necessary, satisfy the burden of initial production at the de novo trial; and 4) will sometimes shift the allocation of the burdens of proof (both production and persuasion) at the de novo trial.
Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 189.
A party may not raise a factual issue for the first time in the circuit court if the issue was not previously raised before the Commission. However, so long as the evidence presented during the WCC hearing gives rise to the issue of fact, a party may put on additional evidence in the circuit court, even if such evidence was not offered in the WCC.
There are many different ways that a party can put on evidence in a de novo trial in circuit court. They can rely solely on the record from the WCC proceeding, in whole or in part; they can rely on the record below and offer additional evidence, including live testimony that was not offered at the Commission; or they can disregard the record below and proceed solely on the evidence presented during the de novo trial. See Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 179-88. Again, even if it cannot be said that the Commission erred as a matter of law, the circuit court can rule in opposition to the judgment below. In fact, even in a de novo appeal that is based solely on the record before the Commission—i.e. the exact same evidence and nothing more—the circuit court may simply disagree with the WCC. See id. at 173 (“The entitlement to fresh, de novo fact-finding is plenary and is not, as we have discussed, dependent in any way on the notion that the Commission’s original fact-finding was in error. At the trial de novo, the propriety of the Commission’s original fact-finding is a matter of no consequence.”) (emphasis added).
Lastly, because a de novo appeal under LE § 9-745(d) can proceed “on the record below,” in an evidentiary sense, it must not be confused with “an appeal on the record” under LE § 9-745(c), which is a term of art. Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 170 -71. To repeat, review under subsection (c) is limited to considering legal correctness, whereas subsection (d) permits a circuit court to decide the case irrespective of the decision below.
The Presumption of Correctness
An essential trial de novo differs from a true trial de novo in large part by operation of LE § 9-745(b), which presumes the correctness of the Commission’s decision. This provision pertains to the ultimate decision of the WCC and not to any possible anecdotal decisions a Commissioner may have made before issuing his or her final ruling. Further, LE § 9-745(b) only applies to de novo review under subsection (d), and not to “routine administrative appeals” under subsection (c). This is akin to the mandate in subsection (e), which applies only to routine appeals under (c) and not to de novo review under (d). The reason the presumption of correctness does not apply to routine administrative appeals is because such cases address questions of law—i.e. legal correctness—which courts review independently. See Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 173; Montgomery County v. Deibler, 423 Md. 54, 60 (2011) (citing Wal Mart Stores, Inc. v. Holmes, 416 Md. 346, 357 (2010)).
The presumption of correctness applies to de novo evidentiary hearings before either a judge or jury, and carries both evidentiary and procedural implications. In an evidentiary sense, the very fact that the WCC found for the prevailing party constitutes relevant and admissible evidence, in and of itself. Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 191-92. However, though the presumption of correctness renders the decision of the WCC relevant and admissible, because the appeal is de novo, the fact finder at the circuit court level is nonetheless entitled to disagree with the outcome below, and rule accordingly. See id. at 173.
With respect to the procedural implications of LE § 9-745(b), the presumption has the potential to shift the burden of proof if the employer is the party that appeals the Commission’s ruling. This is because an injured worker has the burden of proof before the WCC to prove his or her claim by a preponderance of the evidence. However, because the Commission’s decision is presumptively correct, the burden of proof on appeal to the circuit court falls on the party appealing the decision below (i.e. the appellant). Thus, if an injured worker appeals the decision of the WCC, the burden of proof remains the same, as the Claimant is required to prove his claim by a preponderance of the evidence at both levels of litigation. In contrast, if the injured worker prevails before the WCC and the employer appeals, the burden of proof shifts to the employer as the appellant in the case. See Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 202 (“The critical difference between a true trial de novo and an essential trial de novo is that the presumption of correctness had created a reverse situation in which the proposition to be proved at the circuit court level had switched from one of causation to one of non-causation.”).
LE § 9-745(b) also impacts motions for summary judgments and/or directed verdicts, which seek dismissal summarily on the grounds that there is no evidence to support a finding in favor of the non-moving party. Such motions require that the evidence in the case be viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Thus, when the party that did not prevail before the Commission is the one moving for judgment as a matter of law in the circuit court, the existence of the decision below is sufficient evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party—i.e. the prevailing party before the WCC—to defeat the motion. In the alternative, motions for judgment as a matter of law argue that the burden of production has not been met in any given case; hence the appellant, who carries the burden on appeal, cannot move for judgment on the grounds the opposing party did not meet the burden that was in fact the appellant’s to begin with. See Spradlin, 161 Md. App. at 197-205.
Although not expressly stated in the statute, case law has elaborated significantly upon the process for reviewing a case out of the WCC under LE § 9-745. Appeals under LE § 9-745(c) are known as “routine administrative appeals” because they proceed in the same fashion as would any other appeal from an administrative agency, wherein a circuit court’s inquiry is limited to a review for legal correctness. In contrast, a de novo review under LE § 9-745(d) permits the circuit court to rule in opposition to the WCC, even if it cannot be said that the decision below is legally incorrect. Review under LE § 9-745(d) is “essentially,” rather than actually, a trial de novo because of the presumption of correctness in LE § 9-745(b), which carries both evidentiary and procedural implications. However, the presumption of correctness in LE § 9-745(b) does not apply to routine administrative appeals under LE § 9-745(c), but the mandate to affirm legally correct decisions in LE § 9-745(e) does.