The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that an injured public employee is still eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits after being suspended from employment.
The court concluded that workers’ compensation benefits are not compensation as defined in the state’s employee suspension statute because they are not payments made in return for services.
The case, Brian Benoit vs. City of Boston, comes after the plaintiff, who had worked for nearly 20 years as an emergency medical technician and paramedic for the defendant city’s emergency medical services, suffered an ankle injury while transporting a patient on September 5, 2011.
Unable to work, the plaintiff received workers’ compensation payments for almost one year. In August, 2012, the defendant, a self-insured municipal employer, notified the plaintiff that his workers’ compensation payments would be terminated, and the plaintiff filed a claim contesting the termination of the payments with the Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA). Just over a week later, the plaintiff was indicted on 73 counts of criminal misconduct involving controlled substances in his ambulance. The defendant suspended the plaintiff’s employment shortly after.
The DIA conducted a hearing regarding the plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim and eventually ruled in favor of the plaintiff, ordering the defendant to resume making workers’ compensation payments. The defendant appealed from the DIA’s decision and did not comply with the order, so the plaintiff brought an action in the Superior Court.
The defendant argued that the provision of the Massachusetts suspension statute barring suspended public employees from receiving any compensation or salary during the period of suspension overrides the requirements of the workers’ compensation act and that the DIA order should not be enforced. A Superior Court judge agreed and dismissed the enforcement actions.
The judge granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss after concluding that the suspension statute prohibited the plaintiff from receiving workers’ compensation payments while he was suspended because it constituted compensation under the statute, according to the Supreme Court document. The plaintiff appealed from the decision.
On August 5, 2015, the plaintiff pled guilty to one felony count and 17 misdemeanor counts and resigned from his employment with the defendant. He then brought another enforcement action in the Superior Court on the basis that the suspension statute no longer barred his compensation payments because he was no longer suspended.
A different Superior Court judge granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, deciding that the suspension statute still barred the plaintiff from receiving workers’ compensation because his suspension had not been lifted prior to his resignation. The plaintiff appealed from the ruling, and his request that both cases be consolidated was allowed in the Appeals Court. The Supreme Court then transferred the case from the Appeals Court.
The plaintiff argued instead that workers’ compensation does not constitute compensation within the meaning of the suspension statute. The statute states that any suspended employee “shall not receive any compensation or salary during the period of suspension,” according to the Supreme Court document. The term “compensation” is defined as “any money, thing of value or economic benefit conferred on or received by any person in return for services rendered or to be rendered by himself or another,” the document added.
The suspension statute was enacted in 1972 to remedy situations arising when people who have been indicted for misconduct in office continue to perform public duties while waiting for trial. This is because the statute allows for the temporary removal of the employees from office and prevents compensation during their suspension period.
The workers’ compensation act was enacted in 1911, however, and guarantees workers certain benefits as the exclusive remedy for injuries they suffer in the course of employment, regardless of the employer’s fault, the Supreme Court document stated. The period of time during which the injured employee will receive payments is dependent upon the extent and duration of the employee’s incapacity for work.
“The question before us is whether the meaning of the statutory term ‘compensation’ in the suspension statute encompasses such workers’ compensation benefits,” the Supreme Court document stated. “The Legislature defined ‘compensation’ as ‘any money, thing of value or economic benefit conferred on or received by any person in return for services rendered.’ The phrase ‘in return for services rendered,’ given its plain meaning, denotes a reciprocal relationship between the benefits received and the services provided.”
The Supreme Court stated that in order for a benefit to qualify as compensation that a suspended public employee may not receive, it must be provided in return for the employee’s services.
“The receipt of workers’ compensation benefits differs from these because, while such benefits are triggered by injuries that arise in the course of employment, they are not in exchange for services rendered during that employment,” the court document said. “The reciprocal exchange that occurs in the workers’ compensation context is not between services and benefits, but between the waived right to sue the employer in tort for injuries and the guarantee of benefits when injured.”
Because of this, the Supreme Court concluded that workers’ compensation benefits are not compensation as defined in the suspension statute, because they are not payments made in return for services. It ruled that the Superior Court actions brought by the plaintiff to enforce the orders of the DIA were dismissed in error, the judgement was reversed and the matter was remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
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