You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat it Too — Maryland Court Interprets Controversial Phrase “Similar Benefits” and its Effect on Disability Pension Offsets
In Zakwieia v. Baltimore County, Board of Education, 231 Md. App. 644 (2017), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland established the correct interpretation of LE § 9-610 and the controversial phrase “similar benefits.” As a result, the court’s holding provided a basis for the Board of Education of Baltimore County (the Board) to apply ordinary disability retirement benefits owed to the claimant as a credit against the claimant’s workers’ compensation benefits.
Following a December 13, 2007 accidental injury, the claimant filed a claim seeking workers’ compensation benefits for injuries to her back and right shoulder. Thereafter, the claimant sought accidental disability retirement benefits through the Maryland State Retirement Agency. The claimant’s request for accidental disability retirement benefits was denied, however, ordinary disability retirement benefits were awarded following a determination that part of the claimant’s disability was due to her pre-existing back condition related to degenerative arthritis of the lumbar spine.
Following a hearing before the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission, an order was issued finding that the Board was entitled to a statutory offset under LE § 9-610, a statutory provision enacted to provide a single recovery for governmental employees covered by both disability pension plans and workers’ compensation and to prevent double recovery for an injured worker. The Commission’s order was subsequently upheld by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County and an appeal by the claimant to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland followed thereafter.
The claimant’s appeal rested on two arguments. First, the claimant argued that LE § 9-610 did not apply because she was a member of the Teachers’ Pension Union and, instead, § 29-118 of the State Personnel & Pensions (SPP) Article should control. The court rebuked this argument as it was not previously raised before the Commission or the Circuit Court. Beyond the procedural shortcomings, the court maintained that SPP § 29-118 was inapplicable because the claimant was not awarded accidental retirement disability benefits, a requirement for SPP § 29-118 to apply.
The claimant’s second argument rested upon the court’s interpretation of LE § 9-610, specifically the phrase “similar benefits.” The claimant contended that the offset provision applied only when a single medical condition forms the basis for both ordinary disability retirement benefits and workers’ compensation benefits. The court rejected this argument as well. Instead, the court held that the proper interpretation of the phrase “similar benefits” is whether the disability pension benefits provide a similar wage loss benefit to a workers’ compensation award.
The court’s decision prevents future claimants from double-dipping and receiving duplicative benefits for the same disability. In addition, the purpose of LE § 9-610 is preserved and will continue to provide a single recovery for governmental employees covered by workers’ compensation and disability pensions. Looking ahead, governmental agencies can rely upon precedent established in Zakwieia. If an employee receives ordinary disability retirement benefits due to a workers’ compensation disability, an offset under LE § 9-610 must be considered and pursued.