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Supreme Court Reverses Commissioner of the Department of Labor’s Decision Regarding a Credit against Future Workers’ Compensation Benefits

In Sharon Conant v. Entergy Corporation, 2016 VT 74 (July 8, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the Commissioner of the Department of Labor’s decision denying Entergy’s request for a credit against future workers’ compensation benefits owed to its employee, Conant.

Issue: Conant injured her ankle in Entergy’s parking lot in February 2014. After she reported the injury, Entergy submitted a report to AIG, as was procedure. At this point, Conant had access to two forms of payment – payment through the Workers’ Compensation Act and a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Under the Act, an injured employee is eligible for a weekly compensation equal to 2/3 of the employee’s average weekly wages. The CBA provided different amounts of compensation based on whether the injury was occupational or not. The Act and the CBA were meant to work in concert to ensure that an injured employee is able to receive 100% of his or her wages. In this case, AIG denied workers’ compensation benefits, so Entergy provided compensation to Conant under the terms of the non-occupational provision in the CBA, and she received $14,524.16 after taxes and other deductions. Conant also requested a hearing on her claim for workers’ compensation benefits, and a DOL workers’ compensation specialist directed Entergy and AIG to pay Conant benefits retroactive to the date that she started losing time at work due to her injury. This led to Conant receiving more in combined compensation and CBA benefits than she would have if the injury had been found to be occupational or non-occupational from the beginning. The Commissioner then denied Entergy’s request for a credit against future workers’ compensation benefits owed to Conant. Entergy appealed, arguing that the CBA payments and the retroactive temporary total disability payments it was ordered to pay led to Conant receiving more money than she was owed.

Holding: The Supreme Court reversed the Commissioner of the Department of Labor’s decision, remanding for a “determination of the amount to be offset from claimant’s future workers’ compensation benefits.” The Court found that Conant’s receipt of more in wage replacement by not working than she would have if she had not been injured at all or if the injury was clearly work-related from the beginning was inconsistent with precedent, workers’ compensation laws, and public policy. The Court cited to Yustin v. Department of Public Safety, a 2011 case in which the Court held that an employer could offset sick wages against workers’ compensation benefits paid during a period of temporary total disability. The Yustin Court rooted its decision in the policy against the double recovery of benefits. While §651 does not provide for reimbursement, it does provide for an offset for cases when payments were not due and payable when they were received, which was the case with several of the CBA payments. The Court concluded that since Entergy provided “full and direct payment of wage replacement … during the injury period,” the Commissioner’s decision had to be reversed to allow the offset.

Dissent: Robinson, J. dissented, arguing that the majority’s decision disregards the setup of the workers’ compensation statute, unnecessarily broadens the Commissioner of the Department of Labor’s authority, disrupts both existing and future contracts for non-occupational disability coverage, and creates unforeseen complications in calculating workers’ compensation benefits. She further noted that Yustin is problematic for similar reasons and should not be extended beyond the specific circumstances of that case. Given the standard of review for the Commissioner’s decisions – “substantial deference to her initial interpretation and application of the workers’ compensation statutes” – Justice Robinson would have found the Commissioner’s decision to be reasonable and entitled to deference. In her dissent, Justice Robinson first addressed the workers’ compensation statute, finding that the majority should not have concluded that the Commissioner’s determination was in error. She then addressed the purview of the Commissioner’s responsibilities, finding that the majority’s holding requires the Commissioner to undertake legal analysis that she is not equipped to do. Justice Robinson also addressed the majority’s perceived interference with contracts and the complexity of calculating workers’ compensation benefits, noting that the majority has increased the danger of overriding employer/employee agreements on workers’ compensation and that the concept of an “offset” is problematic given the differences between workers’ compensation benefits and disability benefits. Finally, she distinguished Yustin from the case at hand, finding that the CBA in this case did not provide for any credit to the employer, while the personnel policy in Yustin did.

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