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Interpretation of the Act

How Maryland Courts Interpret Ambiguous Provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act. 

The Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”) will be 100 years old this April.[1]  Prior to its enactment in 1914, Maryland merely maintained an insurance fund that covered only a select few.[2]  Initially the Act covered “accidental injuries that arose out of and in the course of employment,” but has subsequently been amended to include occupational diseases as well.[3]

Today, the Act is embodied in the Labor and Employment (“L&E”) Article of the Maryland Code.  Though much more comprehensive than the original version, today’s Act still aims to uphold its historical roots.  Recently, the Court of Appeals has explained:

We recognize that the Act is a remedial statute. The purpose of the Act is to protect workers and their families from hardships inflicted by work-related injuries by providing workers with compensation for loss of earning capacity resulting from accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment. Therefore, we have been consistent in holding that the Act must be construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes.[4]

Maryland courts draw upon classic principles of statutory construction when interpreting the Workers’ Compensation Act.  The goal is to ascertain legislative intent.  The first step is to consider the text of the Act, “giving it its natural and ordinary meaning.”[5]  Where the plain language interpretation is clear and unambiguous, a court’s inquiry is at its end.[6]

However, where the text of a statute is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, it is deemed “ambiguous.”  This then requires consideration of “surrounding circumstances” such as legislative history, prior case law, common law and the statute’s underlying purpose or goals.[7]  Again, the purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act is to the compensate injured worker; accordingly, in instances of ambiguity, the Act is to be interpreted “liberally in favor of injured employees.”[8]

The 2011 decision in Montgomery County v. Deibler is a recent example of how the Court of Appeals construes ambiguous provisions of the Act.[9]  In Deibler, the court was tasked with determining whether the term “wage earning capacity” included overtime work and its associated compensation.

The court held that the pertinent provision in L&E § 9-615 included in its calculation the loss of the ability to work overtime.[10]  The ambiguity arose because the Act did not expressly define “wage earning capacity.”  That is, because the term could reasonably interpreted to “include or exclude overtime compensation,” the court had to “look past the plain language of the Act and employ all the resources and tools of statutory construction at [its] disposal.”[11]

First, the court employed an in-house query; but looking elsewhere in the Workers’ Compensation Act proved futile,[12] as did the court’s subsequent consideration of legislative history and case law.[13]  Therefore, the court was forced to interpret the Act “without the assistance of the traditionally-used interpretive aids.”[14]

Deibler cited a similar situation in the 2007 case of Stachowski v. Sysco Food Serv. of Baltimore, Inc.[15]  There, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether “payment” occurred on the day a disability check was mailed, or on the date that it was received.  The issue arose due to the Act’s statute of limitations provision in L&E § 9-736(b)(3)(iii), which allows claimants to seek reconsideration of compensation awards for a period of five years from the date of “payment.”[16]

The WCC, circuit court and Court of Special Appeals all construed the term to mean “the date the last compensation check was mailed.”  However, the Court of Appeals reversed following a grant of certiorari, holding that L&E § 9-736 referred to “the date payment was received, not the date payment was mailed.”  To arrive at this conclusion, the court considered the dictionary definition of the term, and found it consistent with the term’s use “elsewhere in the Maryland Code – namely, the Maryland Uniform Commercial Code codified in Title 3 of the Commercial Law Article.”[17]

Similarly, the court in Deibler turned to the dictionary for insight into the meaning of “wage earning capacity,” specifically focusing on the definition of “wage.”[18]  According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “wages include every form of remuneration,” which the court believed clearly encompassed overtime compensation.

However, “[w]hile the dictionary may be a starting point to ascertaining the Legislature’s intent, it is not necessarily the end.”  As such, Deibler further followed the Stachowski approach, and looked for correlation elsewhere in the Maryland Code.  The court noted at least five areas where the Workers’ Compensation Act referenced the term “wage,” and concluded “that its meaning is uniform and confirms our understanding of the commonly held, dictionary definition.”

Finally, Deibler ensured that its holding conformed with the Act’s statutory purpose of shielding the injured worker from related hardships.  The particular claimant’s inability to work overtime equated to over $30,000 in lost wages, which the court viewed as a notable “hardship.”  The court further opined that the particular claim was by no means an “isolated” case, as more than half of America’s workforce receives overtime pay.

In sum, Montgomery County v. Deibler reflects the various avenues available to Maryland courts when tasked with interpreting ambiguous provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  Dictionaries are a logical and useful starting point, but further inquiry is generally warranted.  As a general rule, moreover, the Act is to be “construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes.”  Therefore, in instances of ambiguity, a tie goes to the runner – i.e. the injured employee – as evidenced by the outcomes in Deibler and Stachowski.

[1] Wal Mart Stores, Inc. v. Holmes, 416  Md. 346, 363 (2010).

[2] Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 430 Md. 368, n. 8 (2013) (citing Richard P. Gilbert & Robert L. Humphreys, Jr., Maryland Workers’ Compensation Handbook § 1.03 (3d ed.2007)).

[3] Johnson, 430 Md. at 378 (internal citations omitted).

[4] Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 430 Md. 368, 377 (2013) (quoting Montgomery County v. Deibler, 423 Md. 54, 61 (2011)) (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[5] Deibler, supra note 4, at 61 (citing Wal Mart Stores, Inc. v. Holmes, 416 Md. 346 (2010)).

[6] Id.

[7] Johnson, 430 Md. at 377-78 (quoting Breitenbach v. N.B. Handy Co., 366 Md. 467 (2001)); see also Wal Mart, supra note one.

[8] Wal Mart Stores, 416  Md. at 362.

[9] 423 Md. 54, 31 A.3d 191.

[10] Deibler, 423 Md. at 56 (§ 9-615 provides the procedure “for compensating temporary partial disabilities that result from work accidents or occupational diseases”).

[11] Id. at 62 (internal citations redacted) (quoting Reier v. State Dep’t of Assessments & Taxation, 397 Md. 2, 26-27, 915 A.2d 970, 9845-85 (2007)).

[12] Id. at 63 (“[t]he phrase ‘wage earning capacity’ appears nowhere in the Maryland Code, other than in L&E § 9-615. Furthermore, neither ‘wage,’ nor ‘earning,’ nor ‘capacity’ is defined in Subtitle 1, the Act’s Definition and General Provisions subtitle. Moreover, the Act does not mention the word ‘overtime,’ in any context”).

[13] Id. at 64.

[14] Id. at 65.

[15] Deibler, 423 Md. at 65-66 (discussing Stachowski, 423 Md. 54, 31 A.3d 191 (2007)).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See Deibler, 423 Md. at 68, n. 5 (courts must consult the dictionary definition from the time the legislature enacted the particular provision; because the 1914 and 1991 definitions were “strikingly similar to the contemporary definition,” the court utilized the modern definition of “wage”).