The Law Is Fickle – Maryland Court of Appeals Clarifies Zakwieia, the Phrase “Similar Benefits,” and its Effect on Disability Offsets
Recently, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (CSA) held that the phrase “similar benefits,” found within LE §9-610, examined whether an employee’s ordinary disability benefits provided a similar wage loss benefit to the employee’s workers’ compensation benefits. Zakwieia v. Baltimore County, Board of Education, 231 Md. App. 644 (2017). The practice of law is fast-paced and waits for no one. In Reger v. Washington County Board of Education, et al., 2017 WL 3317892 (publication pending), the Maryland Court of Appeals (COA) has already redefined the meaning of LE §9-610’s “similar benefits.” As a result, the COA’s holding may permit an injured employee to receive ordinary disability benefits and workers’ compensation benefits.
Following a November 12, 2007 accidental injury, the claimant filed a claim seeking workers’ compensation benefits in connection with his alleged injuries to his neck, back, left leg, and left elbow. Thereafter, the claimant sought disability retirement benefits from the State Retirement agency citing conditions to his lower back, neck, shoulder, left leg, and left hand. Notably, the claimant referenced the November 12, 2007 accidental injury in his application for disability retirement benefits. Following a recommendation from the Medical Board, the claimant accepted ordinary disability retirement benefits and withdrew his request for accidental disability retirement benefits.
On October 23, 2013, the Washington County Board of Education (the Board) filed issues with the Workers’ Compensation Commission, requesting that the temporary total disability benefits paid through workers’ compensation be offset by the claimant’s ordinary disability retirement benefits under LE §9-610. Following a hearing before the Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Commission issued an order finding that the Board was entitled to an offset under LE §9-610. This finding was affirmed by both the Circuit Court and CSA. An appeal to the COA followed thereafter.
Before the COA, the claimant argued that his ordinary disability benefits and temporary total disability benefits were awarded based upon two distinct injuries. Specifically, the ordinary disability benefits were awarded based upon the claimant’s pre-existing spondylolisthesis in the lumbar spine and the temporary total disability benefits were awarded due to the November 12, 2007 accidental injury. Due to the distinct nature of the injuries, the claimant contended that the ordinary disability benefits and temporary total disability benefits were not “similar benefits” under LE §9-610. Conversely, the Board argued that both the ordinary disability benefits and temporary total disability benefits originated from the November 12, 2007 accidental injury. As a result, both the ordinary disability benefits and temporary total disability benefits are “similar benefits” and the Board is entitled to an offset under LE §9-610.
Consistent with Zakwieia, the COA held that the legislative intent of LE §9-610 is to prevent government employees from receiving a double recovery for the same injury. In Reger, the COA affirmed the CSA’s decision and held that ordinary disability benefits can be legally similar to workers’ compensation benefits if the benefits are a result of the same injury. Notably, the COA does diverge from Zakwieia’s interpretation of “similar benefits.” Under Reger, the “similar benefits” standard is no longer whether both ordinary disability benefits and workers’ compensation benefits compensate an employee for wage loss. Instead, the “similar benefits” standard is now whether the award of ordinary disability benefits and workers’ compensation benefits is due to the same injury.
The precedent established in Reger supports the Zakwieia decision and provides additional case law to prevent government employees from receiving duplicative benefits for the same injury. With that said, Reger’s interpretation of “similar benefits” may open the door for government employees to double-dip and receive two, simultaneous forms of wage loss benefits – workers’ compensation benefits due to an accidental injury or occupational disease and ordinary disability benefits due to an unrelated incapacity. To defend against these instances, government agencies should exhaust all efforts to find common ground between the injury that produces workers’ compensation benefits and the incapacity which leads to an employee’s ordinary disability benefits.