Carroll Thiergartner was a Baltimore County firefighter for 33 years. During his active employment, Thiergartner participated in the County’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). At the time of his retirement, he opted to receive a lump-sum payment from his DROP account. In May 2010, nearly five years after he retired, Thiergartner began to develop chest pain.
Thiergartner was found to have a 99 percent occlusion of two arteries, conditions that required the insertion of stents. Thiergartner filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits in which he asserted that his heart condition was a compensable occupational disease that arose from his employment with the County. A workers’ compensation commission agreed with Thiergartner and found that the effects of Thiergartner’s coronary artery disease amounted to a 25 percent loss of the industrial use of his body. When the Commission calculated Thiergartner’s benefits, it offset what it would have awarded by the sums received by Thiergartner through the DROP.
The Maryland Court of Appeals found that there should be no offset for the DROP payments. The Court found that the workers’ compensation statute “was intended to preclude the sum of a claimant’s weekly retirement and workers’ compensation benefits from exceeding the weekly salary he or she earned during active employment. This goal is accomplished by capping the sum of weekly benefits at the figure of the individual’s pre-retirement income.
“On the facts before us, it cannot be said and has not been alleged, that Thiergartner was ‘gaming the system’ by choosing to accept a portion of his retirement benefits in a lump sum since his election was made years before he was aware of his compensable coronary artery disease. At the time of the election, he had no reason to believe he would subsequently be receiving workers’ compensation benefits, the amount of which would be influenced by his choice in the distribution of his retirement benefits. Moreover, his receipt of the lump sum was an action that came at the detriment of his future weekly retirement benefit payments, lowering them by $98.75. Given that Thiergartner had no way of knowing how many weekly retirement payments he would ultimately receive, accepting the lump sum was a measured risk.
“A plain reading of the statute that workers’ compensation benefits ‘shall be adjusted so that the weekly total of those benefits and retirement benefits does not exceed the weekly salary that was paid to the…firefighter’ does not reveal it to be ambiguous. We do not see a basis for an interpretation that would allow for the accounting of any retirement benefits other than those which are to be paid weekly and concurrently with a workers’ compensation award. We are unwilling to conclude that the Legislature intended for the law to allow for improvisation in the treatment of retirement benefits not clearly contemplated by the statute.”
Baltimore County v. Thiergartner, 2014 WL 1245031 (Md. App. 2014).
The above article has appeared in a previous issue of Public Safety Labor News and has been reprinted courtesy of Labor Relations Information System. These articles are for informational purposes only.