The 2017 calendar year saw the introduction of two prominent cases addressing the offset afforded under Labor and Employment Section 9-610 and two simple words: “similar benefits.” Two cases, two words … little to no clarity. Now, 2018 has seen its first opinion from Maryland’s highest court addressing the critical statute governing disability benefits owed to covered employees of governmental units or quasi-public corporations.
A more complete analysis of the Zakwieia and Reger cases can be can be found in previous post. However, the critical holding from Zakwieia was that the term “similar benefit” referred to whether the two sets of benefits at issue provided a similar wage loss benefit to the individual rather than whether the benefits stemmed from a similar injury. Zakwieia v. Baltimore Co. Bd. Of Educ., 231 Md. App. 644, 654 (2017). Reger then seemingly pivoted on the Zakwieia holding, and established that that the nature of the injury was critical in determining whether ordinary disability benefits should be offset against a workers’ compensation award.
Again, two cases, two words . . . no clear answers.
Enter Norman-Bradford v. Baltimore City Public Schools, No. 2536, SEPT.TERM, 2016, 2018 WL 2017579, at *1 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Apr. 30, 2018) (it’ll have a much better ring to it once it receives its finalized citation from the Court of Appeals).
In Norman-Bradford, the claimant, a para-educator, sustained a compensable accidental injury while working for Baltimore County Public Schools, and was awarded workers’ compensation benefits for causally related injuries to the back, neck, right foot, hip, knee, wrist, psychiatric, and fibromyalgia. The claimant also applied for accidental disability retirement benefits from the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System (SRPS), but was granted an ordinary disability retirement instead. Baltimore County petitioned the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission to offset the claimant’s ordinary disability retirement benefits against her workers’ compensation benefits, citing the statutory offset provision in Labor and Employment Section 9–610(a)(1). The Commission ruled that offset did not apply, while the circuit reversed on appeal. The issue then came before the Court of Special Appeals.
On appeal, the claimant’s argument was two-fold: first, that Section 29-118 of the State Personnel and Pension Article governed the claimant’s rights regarding an offset; and second, that the ordinary disability benefits and workers’ compensation benefits awarded did not constitute “similar benefits” even if LE Section 9-610 did apply.
In drafting the court’s opinion, Judge Nazarian quickly discounted the claimant’s first argument by citing the specific language from SP Section 29-118(a)(2)(i)(2), which confirms that a former school employee who receives a disability retirement benefit is excluded from coverage under the statute and is subject to Section 9-610.
In addressing the second of the two arguments, Judge Nazarian provided a thorough analysis of the implications stemming from both the Zakwieia and Reger cases. In doing so, Judge Nazarian provided the relatively simple observation: “When benefits are not traceable to the same injury, they are dissimilar, and the statutory offset does not apply.” Turning his attention to the facts at hand, Judge Nazarian noted that the claimant applied for both accidental disability benefits and workers’ compensation benefits based on the same injury and physical incapacity.
While the claimant cited multiple maladies in her application for accidental disability retirement, including fibromyalgia, she specifically reported that she “’hadn’t been at work since the fall’” and couldn’t “‘move around as freely as [she’d] like without experiencing severe pain.’” In turn, the evidence presented to the Commission confirmed that the claimant was relatively fine and working full time prior to the accidental injury, but the injury “aggravated” her pre-existing fibromyalgia and caused prolonged symptoms. Because both sets of benefits were awarded for the same injuries and the same physical incapacity, the benefits were undeniably “similar.” The LE § 9-610 offset, therefore, applied.
With Norman-Bradford, the offset afforded under LE § 9-610 underwent another factually-intensive analysis. While the case did not establish any new precedent per se, the case is critical for practitioners to gain a better understanding of the intent behind the term “similar benefits.” Even if there is only a small overlap in the conditions cited in one’s application for accidental disability retirement benefits and workers’ compensation benefits, Maryland courts will find any benefits awarded “similar” under LE § 9-610 so long as the triggering incident for both claims was the same.