December 9, 2020 Article

Maine Workers' Comp Alert: WCB December Updates - Covid-19 Claim Statistics and Appeal Accepted by Law Court

Maine Workers' Comp Alert

The Maine Workers’ Compensation Board met for its regular business meeting on December 8. Among the items discussed were COVID-19 claim statistics and an appeal accepted by the Law Court dealing with a fascinating statute of limitations issue.

COVID-19 Statistics

The latest COVID-19 numbers, as of November 28, 2020, reflect 1,707 lost-time first reports of injury. November was the month with the highest number of lost-time claims at 408. Residential and health-care facilities continue to account for the most reports of injury in this context.

Law Court Accepts Appeal in Charest v. Hydraulic Hose Dealing with Unique Statute of Limitations Issue in the Context of the Coordination of Benefits

The Law Court has granted a petition for appellate review in Charest v. Hydraulic Hose, which involves a unique statute of limitations issue. There, the employee appealed from a decision of a WCB administrative law judge (Collier, ALJ), denying his Petition for Review regarding his April 27, 2001, work injury.

The Employee sustained a low back injury in 2001. The Board issued a decree on March 27, 2006, awarding 35% ongoing partial incapacity benefits. Following that decree, Hydraulic Hose, through its insurer Hanover Insurance, made two payments to the Employee: one check for accrued benefits, and one check for weekly benefits in the amount of $94.92. The last payment was made on April 11, 2006. Thereafter, Hanover advised the Employee through counsel that it would be taking an offset for Social Security retirement benefits that the Employee had been receiving since 2003. See 39-A M.R.S.A. § 221(3)(A)(1) (authorizing a reduction of workers’ compensation benefit by “[f]ifty percent of the amount of old-age insurance benefits received or being received under the United States Social Security Act”). Because the offset reduced Hydraulic Hose’s payment obligation under the Act to zero, no additional benefit payments were made to the Employee after April 11, 2006.

The Employee filed a Petition for Review in 2017. The ALJ denied the petition, concluding that the claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations, 39-A M.R.S.A. § 306(2). The Employee argued that the employer’s ongoing obligation to pay benefits and the Social Security payments he received served to toll the limitations period.

On Appeal, the Employee argued that the statute of limitations has not expired because Hydraulic Hose retained an obligation to pay benefits, even though this obligation is subject to statutory offsets that eliminated its responsibility to send checks to the Employee. The Appellate Division rejected this contention, finding that the language of the statute supports the ALJ’s conclusion that the limitations period has run as to the Employee’s claims for the 2001 injury. Section 306 provides that the six-year period begins to run from a payment of benefits, not from an ongoing obligation to pay benefits that is eliminated when payments are properly coordinated pursuant to section 221.

The Employee also argued that his receipt of Social Security retirement benefits tolled the statute of limitations, citing Stockford v. Bath Iron Works Corp., 482 A.2d 843 (Me. 1984) (payments under the federal Longshore Act are “essentially equivalent” to Workers’ Compensation Act payments and operate to toll the limitations period).

The ALJ declined to extend Stockford to this case because Social Security retirement benefits are not similarly equivalent to workers’ compensation benefits; they do not represent compensation for inability to work due to a workplace injury. They are available to qualifying individuals regardless of whether they sustain work injuries. The Employee argued this was an error, citing Urrutia v. Interstate Brands International, 2018 ME 24, for the proposition that Social Security retirement benefits and workers’ compensation benefits are equivalent because they both serve to replace income and are treated as equivalent by the Legislature. However, the issue in Urrutia was whether section 221 permitted the employer to take a credit in the present for past Social Security payments made to the employee while he was also receiving workers’ compensation benefits. The Court determined that a credit was authorized. The Court reasoned in part that if the credit were not allowed, the employee would receive an impermissible double recovery. The Appellate Division found Urrutia was concerned about the level of income from different sources when combined, rather than the purpose of the sources of income. The Appellate Division found, “We do not read that case as analogizing Social Security retirement and workers’ compensation benefits in the manner that Longshore and workers’ compensation benefits were analogized in Stockford.”

Now that the appeal has been accepted by the Law Court, the parties will submit briefing and argument will occur. Further updates will be provided when available.