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Blankenship v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

May 31, 2018

DANNY BLANKENSHIP
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND/MTA, ET AL.

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-005274

          Berger, Arthur, Friedman, JJ.

          OPINION

          Berger, J.

         This case is before us on appeal from an order of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City granting summary judgment in favor of the Maryland Transit Administration ("MTA"), appellee. We are asked to determine whether the MTA is entitled to apply disability retirement benefits owed to Danny Blankenship ("Claimant"), appellant, as a credit to workers' compensation benefits also owed to him. The Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission ("Commission") determined that the MTA was not entitled to the statutory offset provided in Md. Code (1991, 2008 Repl. Vol.), § 9-610 of the Labor & Employment Article ("LE"). On judicial review, the circuit court reversed the Commission, determining that the LE § 9-610 offset does apply.

         On appeal to this Court, Claimant alleges that the circuit court's ruling was erroneous and presents a single issue for our consideration, which we have rephrased slightly as follows:

Whether the MTA is entitled to an offset under LE § 9-610 when an employee of the MTA is awarded both disability retirement benefits and permanent partial disability workers' compensation benefits for the same accident.

         For the reasons explained herein, we shall affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         On March 1, 2012, Claimant, a 26-year employee of the MTA, suffered an accidental injury at work. Following the injury, Claimant applied for MTA disability retirement. His MTA disability retirement was approved, effective August 1, 2013. Claimant also filed a claim with the Commission and was awarded workers' compensation benefits for permanent partial disability. Claimant currently receives $724.00 per week in workers' compensation benefits. In addition, Claimant receives $490.67 per week in disability retirement from the MTA pension system. The extent of Claimant's injury and the amount of Claimant's award are not at issue in this appeal.

         Before the Commission, the MTA and its insurer, the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund (collectively, "MTA"), requested that the Commission allow an offset from the permanent partial disability benefits pursuant to LE § 9-610. The MTA asserted that the statutory offset applied because Claimant was concurrently receiving disability retirement benefits for the same injuries. The Commission denied the MTA's request for an offset. The Commissioner explained, in a written decision, that there was "ambiguity" as to whether the MTA's pension system was administered by the MTA itself or by the Board of Trustees for the State Retirement and Pension System (the "Board of Trustees").[1] The Commissioner determined that it was appropriate to resolve the ambiguity in favor of Claimant in light of the "long standing proposition that the Workers Compensation statute should be liberally construed in favor of injured workers in order to effectuate its benevolent purpose."

         The MTA filed a petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Claimant and the MTA filed cross-motions for summary judgment. After a hearing, the circuit court reversed the decision of the Commission and found that the statutory offset in LE § 9-610 was applicable to Claimant's benefits. The circuit court, after reviewing the governing law, determined that there was no ambiguity as to the administration of the MTA pension. The circuit court found "that the MTA administers its own plan and . . . the MTA plan is not part of the State Retirement Pension System." This appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The entry of summary judgment is governed by Maryland Rule 2-501, which provides:

The court shall enter judgment in favor of or against the moving party if the motion and response show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the party in whose favor judgment is entered is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Md. Rule 2-501(f).

         The Court of Appeals has articulated the appellate standard of review of a trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment as follows:

On review of an order granting summary judgment, our analysis "begins with the determination [of] whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists; only in the absence of such a dispute will we review questions of law." D'Aoust v. Diamond, 424 Md. 549, 574, 36 A.3d 941, 955 (2012) (quoting Appiah v. Hall, 416 Md. 533, 546, 7 A.3d 536, 544 (2010)); O'Connor v. Balt. Cnty., 382 Md. 102, 110, 854 A.2d 1191, 1196 (2004). If no genuine dispute of material fact exists, this Court determines "whether the Circuit Court correctly entered summary judgment as a matter of law." Anderson v. Council of Unit Owners of the Gables on Tuckerman Condo., 404 Md. 560, 571, 948 A.2d 11, 18 (2008) (citations omitted). Thus, "[t]he 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, 424 Md. at 574, 36 A.3d at 955.

Koste v. Town of Oxford, 431 Md. 14, 24-25, 63 A.3d 582, 589 (2013).

         In an appeal of a workers' compensation case, when the issue presented is an issue of law, "we review the decision de novo, without deference to the decisions of either the Commission or the circuit court." Long v. Injured Workers' Ins. Fund, 225 Md.App. 48, 57 (2015) (citing Gross v. Sessinghause & Ostergaard, Inc., 331 Md. 37, 45-48 (1993)). Because this case presents only issues of law, we apply the de novo standard of review.

         DISCUSSION

         The narrow issue before us in this appeal is whether LE § 9-610 applies to offset Claimant's benefits.[2] Section 9-610 provides:

(a)(1) Except for benefits subject to an offset under § 29-118 of the State Personnel and Pensions Article, if a statute, charter, ordinance, resolution, regulation, or policy, regardless of whether part of a pension system, provides a benefit to a covered employee of a governmental unit or a quasi-public corporation that is subject to this title under § 9-201(2) of this title or, in case of death, to the dependents of the covered employee, payment of the benefit by the employer satisfies, to the extent of the payment, the liability of the employer and the Subsequent Injury Fund for payment of similar benefits under this title.

(Emphasis added.) Claimant asserts that his benefits are subject to the offset set forth in Md. Code (1993, 2015 Repl. Vol.), § 29-118 of the State Personnel & Pensions Article ("SPP"), and, therefore, LE § 9-610 does not apply. In ruling for Claimant, the Commissioner adopted this position. The MTA asserts that the SPP § 29-118 offset does not apply, and, therefore, the LE § 9-610 offset does apply. The circuit court adopted this argument in granting the MTA's motion for summary judgment.

         Before delving into the question of whether SPP § 29-118 applies, we discuss briefly the longstanding policy of the State of Maryland to prevent double recovery for a single injury. Indeed, "Maryland law has long provided for the offset of workers' compensation benefits against certain other benefits." Zakwieia v. Baltimore Cty., Bd. of Educ., 231 Md.App. 644, 651, cert. denied, 454 Md. 676 (2017). "[F]rom the inception of the Workmen's Compensation law, the General Assembly was concerned with, and attempted to prohibit, governmental authorities being obliged to pay benefits to an employee twice as a result of the same injury." Nooe v. City of Baltimore, 28 Md.App. 348, 352 (1975).

         In State Retirement and Pension Systems of Maryland v. Thompson, the Court of Appeals discussed the way in which SPP § 29-118 and LE § 9-610 each operate to prevent double recovery:

Maryland law precludes a government employee from collecting duplicative benefits for the same work-related disability under both the workers' compensation law and the employer's retirement system. If the employee is covered by SRPS [State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland], the basic disability benefits payable by SRPS are reduced by the amount of workers' compensation benefits received by the employee. Maryland Code, ยง 29-118(b)(1) of the State Personnel and Pensions Article (SPP) requires the Board of Trustees of SRPS to reduce disability retirement benefits otherwise payable to the former employee by the amount of any related workers' compensation benefits paid or payable after the effective date of retirement. If the employee is covered by some other public employment plan that provides disability benefits, it is the workers' compensation benefits that get reduced. Section 9-601(a) of ...

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