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In the Matter of Randy Raynor v. Landmark Chrysler et al

November 15, 2011

IN THE MATTER OF RANDY RAYNOR, CLAIMANT,
v.
LANDMARK CHRYSLER ET AL., APPELLANTS, ET AL., RESPONDENT. WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ciparick, J.:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

In this dispute between an employee (claimant) and his employer and its workers' compensation insurance carrier (the carrier), we are asked to interpret Workers' Compensation Law §§ 27 (2) and 15 (3) (w) amended by the Laws of 2007, as they relate to an award for a non-scheduled permanent partial disability made after the effective date for an injury sustained years earlier. We conclude that the Workers' Compensation Board (the Board) and the Appellate Division properly construed the amended statute by requiring the carrier to deposit a lump-sum amount into the Aggregate Trust Fund (ATF) representing the present value of the award.

I.

On March 13, 2007, a comprehensive reform of the Workers' Compensation Law was enacted as a result of years of negotiations by the Governor's Office, the Legislature, the Board and representatives of business and labor. The bill established reforms to the law, carefully negotiated to provide benefits both to workers, businesses and to the insurance companies through a series of trade-offs including:

"(1) increasing maximum and minimum benefits for injured workers and indexing the maximum to New York's average weekly wage; (2) dramatically reducing costs in the workers' compensation system, making hundreds of millions of dollars available annually to be translated into premium reductions; (3) establishing enhanced measures to combat workers' compensation fraud; (4) replacing the Special Disability Fund with enhanced protections for injured veterans; (5) preventing insurance carriers from transferring costs to New York employers by closing the Special Disability Fund to new claims; and (6) creating a financing mechanism to allow for settlement of the Fund's existing liabilities" (Governor's Program Bill Mem, Bill Jacket, L 2007 ch 6, at 5).

New York State's Workers' Compensation Law requires that employers pay benefits to replace lost wages for their employees who become injured during "the course of the employment without regard to fault as a cause of the injury" (Workers' Compensation Law § 10 [1]). An employer must secure the compensation for his employees by obtaining coverage from the New York State Insurance Fund, purchasing coverage from an approved private insurance carrier or obtaining approval from the Board to self insure (see Workers' Compensation Law § 50). This appeal requires us to address the amendments to Workers' Compensation Law §§ 27 (2) and 15 (3) (w) as they pertain to insurance coverage by private insurance carriers only.

The amendment to Workers' Compensation Law § 27 (2) mandates that private insurance carriers make a deposit into the ATF of the present value of awards made pursuant to Workers' Compensation Law § 15 (3) (w) (see L 2007, ch 6, § 46). The ATF was established in 1920 and incorporated into Workers' Compensation Law in 1922.*fn1 Since 1935, private insurance carriers have been required by Workers' Compensation Law § 27 to deposit the present value into the ATF of the estimated lifetime payout of long term indemnity awards for total permanent disabilities and for certain "scheduled" awards for permanent partial disabilities.*fn2 Prior to 2007, the Board, at its discretion, could also order a private insurance company to deposit into the ATF the present value of an unscheduled permanent partial disability indemnity award (see former Workers' Compensation Law § 27 [2]). The 2007 amendment to Workers' Compensation Law § 27 (2) added language to the existing statute now making such payments for unscheduled awards mandatory, (L 2007, ch 6, § 46).

The Legislature also amended Workers' Compensation Law § 15 (3) (w) in 2007. The amendment, in a concession to insurance carriers, capped the number of weeks that a person is eligible to receive benefits for an unscheduled permanent partial disability (see L 2007 ch 6, § 4). Prior to the amendment, a permanently partially disabled worker was able to receive benefits for life (see former Workers' Compensation Law § 15 [3] [w]). The amendment to Workers' Compensation Law § 27 (b) took effect 120 days after the enactment or on July 11, 2007 (see L 2007 ch 6, § 82 [e]), while the amendment to Workers' Compensation Law § 15 (3) took effect immediately upon the signing of the bill on March 13, 2007 (see L 2007 ch 6, § 82 [a]). Accordingly, as of July 11, 2007, benefits awarded for accidents that occurred prior to March 13, 2007, remained uncapped, while benefits awarded for accidents occurring on or after March 13, 2007, were now subject to a newly imposed cap pursuant to amended section 15 (3) (w).

With this framework in place, we now turn to the facts of this case. Claimant Randy Raynor injured his lower back while working for Landmark Chrysler on December 14, 2004. On June 25, 2008, over three years after the initial injury, a Workers' Compensation Law Judge determined that Raynor was permanently partially disabled and directed Landmark Chrysler's insurance carrier, Erie Insurance Company of New York, to deposit the present value of all unpaid benefits -- $196,865.73 -- into the ATF. The carrier submitted an application for Board Review arguing that mandatory deposits of the present value of future benefits into the ATF as required by amended section 27 (2) should only apply to awards made under the amended section 15 (3) (w) because requiring such a deposit for the uncapped, pre-amended section 15 (3) (w) awards is impermissibly retroactive. The carrier also contended that the calculation of such an award is speculative.

On February 6, 2009, a three Board Member panel, with one dissenting vote, upheld the determination that the present value of the uncapped award was to be deposited into the ATF. The Board held that a plain reading of the amended statutes required such a result and the calculation of the award was not speculative. The dissenter adopted the arguments advanced by the carrier. As of right, pursuant to the one member dissent, the carrier submitted an application for a full Board review. In addition to the arguments brought before the three member panel, the carrier additionally raised a number of constitutional arguments to the full Board.

On May 7, 2009, the full Board affirmed the decision of the Workers' Compensation Law Judge, holding that the plain unambiguous language of the statute required that the carrier pay the present value of the uncapped award, in a lump-sum, into the ATF, and that the statute was not impermissibly retroactive. It further concluded that the Board's computation of the present value of claimant's award was not speculative or arbitrary and capricious. It finally opined that the statute did not violate any of the carrier's constitutional rights. The Appellate Division, in a joint opinion including two other claimants, affirmed the Board's decision (see Matter of Collins v Dukes Plumbing & Sewer Serv., Inc., 75 AD3d 697 [3d Dept 2010]). We granted the carrier leave to appeal (15 NY3d 713 [2010]) and now affirm.

II.

"As the clearest indicator of legislative intent is the statutory text, the starting point in any case of interpretation must always be the language itself, giving effect to the plain meaning thereof" (Majewski v Broadalbin-Perth Cent. School Dist., 91 NY2d 577, 583 [1998]). Additionally, "[w]here a statute describes the particular situations in which it is to apply and no qualifying exception is added, an irrefutable inference must be drawn that what is omitted or not included was intended to be omitted or excluded" (Matter of Alonzo M. v New York City Dept. of Probation, 72 NY2d 662, 665 [1988] [internal quotation marks omitted]).

The carrier urges us to allow pre-March 13, 2007, uncapped benefit awards to be exempt from the section 27 (2) deposit requirement, arguing that because the Legislature amended Workers' Compensation Law ยงยง 27 (2) and 15 (3) (w) at the same time, the only permissible reading of the two statutes is that the deposit of the present value of future awards into the ATF was only intended to apply to the newly enacted capped awards pursuant to the amended section 15 (3) (w) and that the deposit requirements should be limited to workers injured after the effective date of the ...


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