Maryland’s High Court Reverses Course and Strengthens Modification Powers of the Workers’ Compensation Commission

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The Maryland Court of Appeals recently overturned the lower court’s decision limiting the Workers’ Compensation Commission’s (WCC) revisory powers. The Court of Special Appeals previously found the WCC did not have authority to retroactively modify a claimant’s rate of compensation. However, the high court has reversed course and affirmed the commission’s broad powers in the case of Peter Gang v. Montgomery County, No. 67 Sept. Term 2018, 2019 WL 2574657 (Md. Ct. App. June 24, 2019).

By way of background, the claimant, Peter Gang, was a public safety correctional officer for Montgomery County when he sustained a compensable work injury on September 17, 2011. The claimant ultimately received a permanent partial disability award on May 2, 2012, which paid him at the first-tier disability rate of $157.00 per week. At the time of the award, the claimant’s attorney failed to recognize his disability rate was incorrect; the claimant was, in fact, a public safety employee and should have been awarded a second-tier disability rate under Maryland law.

The claimant’s incorrect disability rate went unaddressed until the claimant filed a Request for Document Correction nearly four years later. Thereafter, the WCC issued an amended award dated March 25, 2016, modifying the original compensation rate from $157.00 to $314.00, which led to additional payments being due from the employer and insurer. The employer and insurer noted their objection and the parties appeared for a hearing before the WCC wherein the amended award was affirmed. On appeal, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County upheld the WCC’s decision to amend the claimant’s rate of payment for the original May 2, 2012 permanency award. As noted above, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the circuit court’s finding and sided with the employer and insurer in finding the compensation rate could not be retroactively modified.

The crux of the parties’ arguments revolved around the reading of Labor and Employment Section 9-736 and whether the WCC possessed authority to retroactively adjust a claimant’s disability payment well after a permanent partial disability award was issued. The employer and insurer argued that 9-736(a) only allowed a prospective adjustment of the rate of compensation in cases of aggravation, diminution or termination of disability. The claimant relied on 9-736(b), which grants the commission continuing powers and jurisdiction over a claim. By way of 9-736(b), the claimant argued the commission had authority to retroactively adjust a claimant’s disability payment rate as long as the modification fell within the five year statute of limitations.

The court focused on the commission’s “wide breadth of authority to modify previous findings and orders” and that any uncertainty in the law should be resolved in favor of the claimant. They further explained that 9-736(a) does not limit Section 9-736(b) to only prospective modification and there was no bases in statute or precedent to limit the breadth of Section 9-736(b) to only prospective application.

The court’s opinion emphasizes the liberal construction of the Workers’ Compensation Act and deference afforded to claimants. This is all the more reason to remain vigilant and aggressive in defending Maryland claims.