Appeal from the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, Paul G. Goetzke, Judge.
Argued by: Ronald H. Jarashow (Baldwin, Kagan & Gormley, LLC on the brief) all of Annapolis, MD for Appellant.
Argued by: Jill R. Leiner (Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General on the brief) all of Baltimore, MD for Appellee.
Panel: Berger, Nazarian, Reed, JJ.
[217 Md.App. 198] Nazarian, J.
Laurie Burr, a former employee of Maryland's Administrative Office of the Courts, endured a difficult struggle with cancer while continuing to work, mostly from home. On August 27, 2007, she went to the office to meet with her supervisor; her health had improved, although not yet to the point where she had returned fully to work, and she understood the purpose of the meeting was to discuss her schedule and leave and assignments. Instead, she alleged (and, for purposes of this appeal, the Trustees of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System (the " Trustees" of the " System" ) don't dispute), that her supervisor reduced the hours on her timesheet for work she had done, retroactively revoked her telework agreement, removed
her from an important project she had led, reassigned her to " busywork," and demanded that she return to work in person before her doctors cleared her. She contended that these unexpected and obviously negative personnel decisions precipitated a sudden decline in her mental health and caused her to become suicidal. She has never returned to work, and everyone agrees that she is permanently disabled.
The question for us is whether she was disabled by an " accident." When she applied to the System for disability retirement benefits, Ms. Burr argued that the events of the August 27, 2007 meeting were so surprising to her that they [217 Md.App. 199] qualified as an " accident," and thus that she was entitled to an accidental disability retirement allowance under Md. Code (1993, 2009 Repl. Vol.), § 29-109(b) of the State Personnel and Pensions Article (" SP" ). The Trustees disagreed and approved an " ordinary" disability retirement. An Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) and the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County upheld the Trustees' decision, and Ms. Burr appeals. We hold that personnel decisions, even decisions that are surprising, cannot, as a matter of law, qualify as disabling " accidents," and we affirm the Trustees' decision to deny Ms. Burr's application for accidental disability benefits.
Ms. Burr was hired as a Technical Business Analyst for the Maryland State Judiciary's Administrative Office of the Courts (" the AOC" ) in 2001. By all accounts, she was a good and competent employee, and she appears to have had a substantial role in the Judiciary's evolution toward electronic filing. The record reveals that she received strong performance reviews, and there is no issue in this case about her job performance, her eligibility to retire, or that she is permanently disabled. The only issue before us is the nature of her disability retirement, and specifically whether the events that caused her disability qualify her for an accidental disability retirement allowance which, if awarded, would yield a higher allowance than the ordinary retirement benefits that the Trustees already awarded her.
In October 2006, Ms. Burr was diagnosed with breast cancer. The AOC allowed her to work from home over the course of her treatment, and, as the summer of 2007 came to a close, she finished chemotherapy and contemplated easing into a schedule that would transition her back to working in the office. Her illness consumed all of her accumulated leave, and she drew both on leave available to her under the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ) and a Judiciary leave bank. But according to a letter from her supervisor, Charles Moulden, dated August 23, 2007, that she received by certified mail the next day, Ms. Burr had exhausted all available leave, and [217 Md.App. 200] the Judiciary's Human Resources Office " directed that [Ms. Burr] return to work fulltime, immediately." This letter also stated, though, that in light of the " nature and totality of the circumstances," Ms. Burr was not actually required to come back full time until September 12, 2007. To Ms. Burr, the letter was a " surprise," but " she did not become psychologically damaged" as a result of reading it.
Ms. Burr had planned already to go to the office the following Monday, August 27, to meet with her supervisors, complete her timesheet, and discuss the logistics of her return to work in light of " her medical doctors' requirements for [a] flex plan." When she arrived, she had an email waiting from Mr. Moulden saying that he wanted to meet with her and her other supervisor at 1:30 p.m. " to discuss work
assignments and leave." No surprise there.
But the meeting itself went differently than the one-line request might suggest or than Ms. Burr expected. According to Ms. Burr, Mr. Moulden informed her that her telework agreement would be revoked retroactive to August 15, 2007, a decision that contradicted the statement in his letter from four days earlier. Ms. Burr discovered that Mr. Moulden had already completed her timesheet, without seeking her input or consulting her, and credited her with only four hours' work each day rather than the full eight hours. Mr. Moulden also removed her from the project she had been leading and directed her to begin full-time, in-office " busywork" immediately, " without exception," and told her that she had exhausted all medical leave. Ms. Burr felt certain at that time that she had not in fact exhausted her leave and that her doctors would not clear her to return to work under these conditions; in fact, at that point, they had not cleared her to return at all.
In an " Employee's Report of Injury" (the " Injury Report" ) dated May 1, 2008, Ms. Burr explained that after the meeting, she suffered a " memory blackout," and the next thing she remembers is visiting her neighbors that evening. She returned home and determined that she was going to end her life. Instead, she fell asleep, called in sick the next morning, [217 Md.App. 201] and kept a regularly-scheduled appointment with her psychologist, Benna Sherman, that afternoon. At Dr. Sherman's urging, Ms. Burr admitted herself to Baltimore-Washington Medical Center, and later was hospitalized at Sheppard Pratt. She never returned to her job with the AOC.
On July 2, 2008, Ms. Burr filed a Statement of Disability (the " Statement" ), the document that served as her application for disability retirement benefits. In the Statement, she characterized her disability as both " Ordinary" and " Accidental," and she referred back to the Injury Report in the section of the Statement that called for a description of the " accident." On its first review, the State Retirement Agency (the " Agency" ) determined (in a letter sent to Ms. Burr from a counselor in the Disability Unit on July 10, 2008) that Ms. Burr's claim was " not compensable as an accidental injury as defined by the Maryland retirement law," and that her claim for accidental disability retirement benefits would be denied. On July 23, 2008, the Medical Board to the Agency recommended that she be approved for " ordinary disability due to a psychiatric condition" (emphasis added), but recommended that the Trustees deny her accidental disability claim, and the Trustees adopted that recommendation on August 19, 2008. On December 11, 2008, Ms. Burr accepted the ordinary disability award, but opted to pursue ...