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Felix L. Johnson, Jr., Deceased v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore

February 25, 2013

FELIX L. JOHNSON, JR., DECEASED
v.
MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE



Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-10-000102

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barbera, J.

Felix L. Johnson, Jr., Deceased v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 45, September Term 2012

STATUTORY INTERPRETATION -- WORKERS' COMPENSATION BENEFITS -- PAYMENT OF DUAL PENSION AND WORKERS' COMPENSATION BENEFITS TO DEPENDENTS OF DECEASED CLAIMANT --

The General Assembly amended the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act in 2007 to allow the surviving dependents of a firefighter or other specified public safety worker who died as a result of an occupational disease to collect both the deceased employee's retirement and workers' compensation benefits, up to the amount of the employee's weekly salary at the time of his or her death. There is no express language in the amendments to Maryland Code (1999, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2012 Supp.), § 9-503(e) of the Labor and Employment Article, indicating that they applied retroactively. The change to the statute was substantive, not procedural or remedial, because it enlarged the potential class of beneficiaries. Given the presumption that substantive changes in the law apply prospectively, claimants who sought dual benefits prior to the 2007 amendments are not able to collect up to the amount of a deceased employee's weekly salary, but instead must have their benefits reduced by the general offset provision in § 9-610 of the Labor and Employment Article.

Bell, C.J., Harrell Battaglia Greene Barbera McDonald Cathell, Dale R. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by Barbera, J.

Bell, C.J., Harrell and Cathell, JJ., dissent

The Maryland Workers' Compensation Act allows the surviving dependents of a firefighter who died from an occupational disease to collect both pension and workers' compensation benefits after the firefighter's death, up to the amount of what had been the firefighter's weekly salary. Md. Code (1999, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2012 Supp.), § 9-503(e) of the Labor and Employment Article.*fn1 This policy has been in effect since October 1, 2007, when the General Assembly amended the Act specifically to make dependents eligible for these dual benefits. Previously, dependents who wished to collect pension survivorship

benefits and workers' compensation death benefits had the total amount of the deceased worker's compensation benefits reduced by the amount of the pension benefits under § 9- 610.*fn2 The offset provided in § 9-610 continues to apply to all government employees who are not specifically exempted under § 9-503(e).

We are confronted in this case with the question of whether a widow whose claim was pending at the time of the 2007 amendments, and who wishes to collect both her husband's retirement and workers' compensation benefits, is entitled to collect under the amended § 9- 503(e) or, instead, is bound by the general offset provision of § 9-610. In other words, did the General Assembly intend that the 2007 amendments to § 9-503(e) apply retroactively to all claims pending at the time or only prospectively to new claims? For reasons we shall explain, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and hold that the amendments to § 9-503(e) do not apply retroactively. As a result, Petitioner's claim is governed by the offset provisions of § 9-610.

I.

Felix L. Johnson, Jr. worked as a firefighter in Baltimore City for nearly 26 years until he retired on June 9, 1990. One month later, he married Janice Johnson (hereinafter "Petitioner").*fn3 Petitioner was not employed at the time and was entirely dependent on her husband for support. Johnson died of a heart attack at the age of 63 on November 7, 2005. As his widow, Petitioner began receiving survivorship benefits from her husband's pension shortly after his death.

On January 10, 2006, Petitioner filed a dependent's claim for death benefits under the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act. As to the cause of Johnson's disease, Petitioner stated in her claim: "The decedent was continuously exposed to heat, smoke, noxious fumes and the product of combustion, causing him to sustain heart disease resulting in death." The claim came on for a hearing before the Workers' Compensation Commission ("Commission") on October 1, 2009. Petitioner testified in support of her claim and was questioned regarding her dependency on her husband, his general health, and the linkage between his employment as a firefighter and his death from a heart attack. The major dispute at the hearing concerned what provision of the Act was applicable to Petitioner's claim. The City, Respondent here, a self-insured employer, argued that the dollar-for-dollar offset under § 9-610 should apply because § 9-503(e) was not amended to include dependents in its scope of coverage until 2007. Petitioner, meanwhile, argued that the weekly salary cap under § 9- 503(e) should apply to her claim because her claim was pending at the time the General Assembly enacted the amendments.

The Commission issued an initial award of benefits to Petitioner on December 4, 2009, but later rescinded that decision and issued an amended award on February 26, 2010, reducing the total amount of Petitioner's weekly benefits.*fn4 As part of its findings, the Commission determined that Johnson "sustained an occupational disease (heart disease) arising out of and in the course of employment" and died as a result. The Commission found further that Petitioner was wholly dependent on her husband for support. Finally, the Commission determined that § 9-503(e) governed the claim, which effectively meant that the dollar-for-dollar offset under § 9-610 would not apply.

The City filed a petition for judicial review with the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on December 30, 2009, challenging only the Commission's conclusion that § 9-503(e) applied to Petitioner's claim.*fn5 Both sides filed cross-motions for summary judgment and the matter came on for a hearing before the Circuit Court on September 1, 2010. In granting the City's motion for summary judgment, and denying the motion filed by Petitioner, the Circuit Court ruled that at the time Petitioner's claim arose in 2005, § 9-503 "did not include the dependents of firefighters." Rather than viewing the 2007 amendments to § 9-503 as being remedial, as Petitioner urged, the Circuit Court concluded that "the statute provides a substantive right to a class of individuals." As a result, the Circuit Court ruled that dependents, such as Petitioner, had no pre-existing right to dual benefits prior to the statute's amendment. The Circuit Court concluded that, although this was "a very harsh result," the amended statute did not apply to Petitioner's claim and the claim instead was governed by the offset provision in § 9-610.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court, concluding that the 2007 amendments involved a "substantive change" in the law that precluded it from applying to pending cases.*fn6 Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 203 Md. App. 673, 703-04 (2012). Petitioner sought a writ of certiorari in this Court, which we granted on August 20, 2012. Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 427 Md. 606 (2012).

II.

Section 9-745 governs appeals of decisions by the Workers' Compensation Commission.*fn7 The Commission's decision "is presumed to be prima facie correct," § 9- 745(b)(1), but "this presumption does not extend to questions of law, which we review independently." Montgomery County v. Deibler, 423 Md. 54, 60 (2011) (citing Wal Mart Stores, Inc. v. Holmes, 416 Md. 346, 357 (2010)). This appeal is from the Circuit Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the City. "When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we must make the threshold determination as to whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, and only where such dispute is absent will we proceed to review determinations of law." Stachowski v. Sysco Food Servs. of Baltimore, Inc., 402 Md. 506, 515-516 (2007) (quoting Remsburg v. Montgomery, 376 Md. 568, 579 (2003)). The parties agree on the facts, leaving the interpretation of § 9-503(e) as the sole legal issue before us. "The standard of review of a trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment on the law is de novo, that is, whether the trial court's legal conclusions were legally correct." D'Aoust v. Diamond, 424 Md. 549, 574 (2012) (quoting Messing v. Bank of Am., N.A., 373 Md. 672, 684 (2003)); see also Uninsured Employers' Fund v. Danner, 388 Md. 649, 658-59 (2005) (citing Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 387 Md. 1, 5-6 (2005)) (noting that "the standard of review in a workers' compensation claim disposed of at summary judgment by the Circuit Court is de novo").

The purpose and design of the Act factor into our interpretation of its provisions. As part of our review, "we recognize that the Act is a remedial statute." Deibler, 423 Md. at 61 (citing Design Kitchen & Baths v. Lagos, 388 Md. 718, 724 (2005)). "The purpose of the Act is '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.'" Id. (quoting Howard County Assoc. for Retarded Citizens, Inc. v. Walls, 288 Md. 526, 531 (1980)). "Therefore, we have been consistent in holding that the Act must be 'construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes.'" Id. (quoting Lagos, 388 Md. at 724).

Our approach follows the general principles of statutory interpretation. "First, if the plain meaning of the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, and consistent with both the broad purposes of the legislation, and the specific purpose of the provision being interpreted, our inquiry is at an end." Breitenbach v. N. B. Handy Co., 366 Md. 467, 473 (2001) (citing Marriott Employees v. Motor Vehicle Admin., 346 Md. 437, 445 (1997)). "Second, when the meaning of the plain language is ambiguous or unclear, we seek to discern the intent of the legislature from surrounding circumstances, such as legislative history, prior case law, and the purposes upon which the statutory framework was based." Id. (citing DeBusk v. Johns Hopkins Hosp., 342 Md. 432, 437 (1996)). "Last, applying a canon of construction specific to the Act, if the intent of the legislature is ambiguous or remains unclear, we resolve any uncertainty in favor of the claimant." Id. (citing Baltimore v. Cassidy, 338 Md. 88, 97 (1995)). "This Court, however, may not stifle the plain meaning of the Act, or exceed its purposes, so that the injured worker may prevail." Id. (citing Morris v. Bd. of Educ., 339 Md. 374, 384 (1995)).

III.

Nearly 100 years ago, the General Assembly enacted the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act.*fn8 Chapter 800 of the Acts of 1914. In its original form, the Act "provided compensation only for disability or death of an employee from an 'accidental injury' that arose out of and in the course of employment." Yox v. Tru-Rol Co., 380 Md. 326, 330-31 (2004) (citing Belschner v. Anchor Post, 227 Md. 89, 92 (1961)). The General Assembly amended the law in 1939 to provide compensation for injuries that arose because of certain occupational diseases and revised the law again in 1951 to provide coverage for all occupational diseases. Id. at 331-32. In 1971, recognizing that firefighters were "susceptible to diseases formerly not recognized as occupational," the General Assembly amended the Act to grant a presumption in favor of compensation for "certain classes of fire fighters suffering from heart or lung disease, or hypertension." Polomski v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 344 Md. 70, 78 (1996). This presumption later was expanded to include additional public safety workers, such as police officers, and to cover additional occupational diseases.*fn9 Johnson, 387 Md. at 13-14.

We last had cause to analyze the occupational disease provisions of the Act in Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 387 Md. 1 (2005).*fn10 We observed that § 9-502 "requires employers and insurers to compensate covered employees and their dependents for disability or death that results from occupational disease." 387 Md. at 6. The liability of employers is limited, though, "by requiring the occupational disease to meet certain requirements in order to be compensable." Id. "Section 9-503 of the Labor and

Employment Article carves out an exception to the general occupational disease provisions noted in § 9-502 by giving special treatment to employees in particular professions who are suffering from particular diseases." Id. at 7. A presumption exists that occupational diseases contracted by certain employees, including firefighters, are compensable. Id. at 7-8. At the time we analyzed § 9-503(e) in Johnson, the provision allowed for firefighters and other qualified employees to receive both workers' compensation benefits and pension benefits, up to the total amount of the covered employee's weekly salary. Id.

We considered in Johnson a claim brought by the widows of two firefighters whose husbands had died of cancer as a result of their work. Id. at 3. The widows argued they were entitled to collect the full amount of their husbands' workers' compensation death benefits in addition to their husbands' pension benefits, rather than having the workers' compensation benefits reduced by the amount they received from the pensions. Id. We held that ...


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