Combining scheduled and non-scheduled losses that arise out of a single accidental injury

The following is a brief synopsis of the Maryland Court of Appeals’ decision in Montgomery County v. Robinson, 435 Md. 62 (2013).

Scheduled and Non-Scheduled Losses

There are four general types of workers’ compensation disability benefits: temporary total and temporary partial, as well as permanent total and permanent partial.  The Act provides directives for calculating individual awards based on the severity and extent of a given injury.  After an employee reaches maximum medical improvement, he or she is no longer entitled to an indefinite, temporary disability award.  Nevertheless, the employee could then potentially qualify for permanent disability.

For permanency purposes, the Act grants the Commissioner who presides over a Workers’ Compensation Commission (“WCC”) hearing the authority to award compensation for the loss or “loss of use” of certain body parts to a certain percentage.[1]  For example, the Act provides 250 weeks of compensation for the loss of a foot, which reflects a 100% loss of use.[2]  The same is true for the loss of a hand.[3]  In contrast, leg and arm injuries are compensated at a rate of 300 weeks.[4]  However, the WCC has the ability to find that a particular claimant has lost less than 100% of a “scheduled member.”  Therefore, if the WCC were to find a 50% loss of a foot, a claimant would be entitled to 125 weeks of compensation, rather than 250 weeks.

The breakdown of compensation due for specific PPD awards is set forth in L&E § 9-627.  Therein, subsections (a) through (j) outline the compensation rates for various “scheduled member” losses.  For non-scheduled members, L&E § 9-627(k) applies.  Also regarded as “other cases” injuries, subsection (k) states:

In all cases of permanent partial disability not listed in subsections (a) through (j) of this section, the Commission shall determine the percentage by which the industrial use of the covered employee’s body was impaired as a result of the accidental personal injury or occupational disease.[5]

Scheduled members include arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, ears and fingers.[6]  Non-scheduled members, or “other cases” injuries, include the neck, chest, back and shoulders.[7]  All variations of PPD benefits are based on a pre-determined range of compensation for a specified period of weeks.[8]  For non-scheduled injuries, subsection (k) provides the appropriate scale of 500 weeks.

The 3 Tiers of Permanent Partial Disability

Moreover, as is the case with all workers’ compensation benefits, relevant to the calculation of an individual award is the employee’s average weekly wage and the State average weekly wage for the year in which the injury occurred.  Unlike other types of comp benefits, however, permanent partial disability (“PPD”) is governed by a three “tier” system.  More specifically, a PPD award equates to a percentage of the employee’s average weekly wage, with said percentage being based on the particular compensation “tier” for which the injury qualifies.

A tier one award is due when, based upon a permanency rating, an injured worker is entitled to less than 75 weeks of permanent partial disability. A tier one award is only worth one-third of the individual’s average weekly wage, multiplied by the number of total weeks of compensation that the employee is due to receive. However, an individual award under tier one may not exceed a percentage of the State average weekly wage for that same period.

Put into context, a tier one would be due where an employee suffers a 10% loss of the arm—i.e. 30 weeks of compensation—because it is under 75 weeks of total compensation. Assuming the employee’s average weekly wage is $600 (one-third of which being $200), then the total award due to the injured worker would be $6000—i.e. 30 weeks of comp at a weekly rate of $200. Of course, this calculation would be contingent on the state weekly average for the specific year in which the injury occurred, and any award would be “capped” by a percentage of the state average.

A tier two award is due when an injured worker is entitled to PPD for a period of time ranging from 75 to 249 weeks of compensation. A tier two award is worth two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly wage, not to exceed one-third of the state average.

A tier three award is referred to as “serious disability” and is warranted when an employee is due at least 250 weeks of PPD. A tier three award equates to two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly wage and is capped at 75% of the state average.

For more information of the three tiers of PPD, click here.

The Workers’ Compensation Act must be Construed in Favor of the Injured Worker

According to the Maryland Court of Appeals, 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.[9]  An ambiguity arises where a particular statute or provision therein is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.[10]

The primary goal of a court charged with interpreting a statute is to effectuate the intentions of the legislature.[11]  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.[12]  Only where the plain English is subject to multiple readings will courts draw on secondary considerations.[13]  Classic principles of statutory construction include considering legislative history, prior case law, common law and the statute’s underlying purpose or goals.[14]

Scheduled and Non-Scheduled Losses may be Combined for ANY Tier of Disability

One recent example of how the Workers’ Compensation Act is interpreted in Maryland is the 2013 case of Montgomery County v. Robinson.  There, the Court of Appeals held that scheduled and non-scheduled losses arising from a single accidental injury may be combined for purposes of calculating PPD for any of the Act’s three “tiers” of compensation.[15]  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).  More 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.[16]

The court determined that L&E § 9-629 was ambiguous, as it could be reasonably read to allow or preclude the combining of scheduled and non-scheduled injuries to attain a tier two award.[17]  Prior to reaching the court, the WCC had awarded compensation at a tier two rate after combining a hand/wrist injury (which was viewed as a scheduled loss) and a back injury (which was viewed as a non-scheduled loss).[18]  The County appealed the ruling and argued that because L&E § 9-630 expressly provides for the combination of scheduled and non-scheduled losses, the silence in L&E § 9-629 reflects that the Maryland General Assembly intended that such combinations be disallowed.[19]

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.[20]  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.[21]

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.”[22]  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.[23]

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.”[24]  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.”[25]

Lastly, Robinson concluded by asserting that precedent “required” holding that award combinations be allowed in all cases of permanent partial disability.[26]  This was because a hallmark of statutory construction mandates consideration of a statute’s underlying purpose.[27]  In Maryland, the Workers’ Compensation Act is “remedial” in nature.  As such, courts have repeatedly emphasized “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.’”[28]  In Robinson, the court believed that the County’s position would “undercut” the Act’s remedial nature, and instead elected to interpret the statutory ambiguity in favor of the injured

[1] See Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-627(e).

[2] Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-627(d)(1).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-627(k).

[6] Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-627(d).

[7] See, e.g., Montgomery County v. Robinson, 435 Md. 62 (2013); Getson v. WM Bancorp et al., 346 Md. 48 (1997).

[8] Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-627(d).

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Id.

[15] 435 Md. 62 (2013).

[16] Robinson, 435 Md. at 76.

[17] Id. at 77-78.

[18] Id. at 74.

[19] Id. at 76.

[20] Id. at 77-78.

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

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

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 81.

[25] Id. at 81.

[26] 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.

[27] Montgomery County v. Deibler, 423 Md. 54, 61 (2011) (citing Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-101(b)(1)).

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