Saying the commission misinterpreted its own regulation, Maryland’s top court has invalidated a workers’ compensation claim because a paper version of it was filed a day late — even though an emailed copy was submitted within the two-year statute of limitations.
The Workers’ Compensation Commission’s regulations provide that claims are not considered “filed” until a signed paper version is received at the commission, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Thursday. Thus, the commission erroneously let Mark Hranicka proceed with his claim against his employer, Chesapeake Surgical Ltd., and its insurance company for injuries he sustained in an on-the-job car crash, the high court added.
In its decision, the Court of Appeals noted the usual deference it gives to agencies’ interpretations of their own rules. However, no deference is owed when the regulation is “unambiguous” and contradicts the commission’s interpretation, the court added in affirming a decision by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals.
“[I]t is clear from the structure of the regulations that the filing of claims is governed by [Code of Maryland Regulations] 14.09.02.02, which expressly provides that ‘[a] claim that is submitted electronically is not considered filed until the signed claim form, including the signed authorization for disclosure of health information, is received by the commission,’” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court.
The high court acknowledged in its decision that electronic filing has become widely accepted, including by the Maryland Judiciary in cases filed in trial and appellate courts. But broad acceptance does not trump a clearly written rule, the court added.
“Although this court certainly endorses and supports the advent of electronic filing in Maryland courts, the commission has not promulgated regulations implementing or governing a procedure for the electronic filing of workers’ compensation claims,” Watts wrote. “To be clear, nothing in this opinion precludes the commission from promulgating new regulations to permit electronic filing of claims, nor are we expressing a preference that workers’ compensation claims necessarily be filed in paper form,” Watts wrote. “We simply hold that currently, under COMAR, electronic submission of claim forms does not constitute filing.”
Judge Robert N. McDonald, in a concurring opinion, criticized the commission for failing to comply with the General Assembly’s direction in the workers’ compensation statute to adopt regulations “as simple and brief as reasonably possible.” Instead, the commission adopted a regulation that counterintuitively requires claims to be submitted electronically but only credits as filed those claims submitted on paper, he wrote.
Making rules simple and brief is “easier said than done, as this case illustrates,” McDonald added in the concurrence joined by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judge Clayton Greene Jr.
H. Scott Curtis, the commission’s counsel, said the high court’s decision will be a topic of discussion at the panel’s meeting Thursday. One option under consideration is changing the regulation to state that the two-year statute of limitations is met so long as an electronic submission is made in time and a paper claim is subsequently filed, added Curtis, an assistant Maryland attorney general.
Chesapeake Surgical and its insurer, NorGuard Insurance Co., filed with the commission a “first report of injury or illness” on Jan. 21, 2010, about two weeks after Hranicka sustained the injury.
The filing started the two-year statutory time limit for Hranicka to file his claim with the commission.
Hranicka electronically submitted a claim to the commission on Jan. 17, 2012, followed by a paper copy on Jan. 24, 2012.
Chesapeake Surgical and NorGuard challenged the claim as having been filed a day late. The deadline, they argued, was Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, based on their filing on Jan. 21, 2010, and the fact that Jan. 21, 2012, fell on a non-business Saturday.
Hranicka countered that he met the deadline, with six days to spare, with his electronic submission.
The commission agreed in June 2012, stating that the late-filed paper copy related back to the on-time electronic submission.
The Baltimore City Circuit Court upheld the commission’s decision, prompting the company and insurance company to seek review by the Court of Special Appeals.
The intermediate court reversed the commission, stating in an unreported opinion that its regulation requires a paper filing within the two-year statute of limitations.
Hranicka then filed his ill-fated appeal with Maryland’s top court.
Attorneys for Hranicka and Chesapeake Surgical and NorGuard did not return telephone messages seeking comment Friday.
Hranicka was represented at the high court by L. Teri Spradlin-Dahn, of Teri Spradlin LLC in Annapolis. Chesapeake Surgical and NorGuard were represented by Sean E. Smith, of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore.
The Court of Appeals case is Hranicka v. Chesapeake Surgical Ltd. et al., No. 83, September Term 2014.
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