Corrine A. Lang as Executrix of the Estate of Kevin Lang
Municipal Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island.
Appellate Division of the Worker's Compensation Court
(15-4163) Associate Judge Debra L. Olsson Associate Judge
Hugo L. Ricci Associate Judge Robert E. Hardman
Petitioner: James E. Kelleher, Esq.
Respondent: Michael P. Robinson, Esq. Christopher J.
Fragomeni, Esq. John H. McCann, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and
GILBERT V. INDEGLIA JUSTICE
Court issued a writ of certiorari to review a decision by the
Appellate Division of the Workers' Compensation Court
(WCC) upholding the award of accidental disability benefits
for occupational cancer to the petitioner, Kevin Lang (Lang
or petitioner). The Appellate Division affirmed the trial
judge's ruling that the WCC had subject-matter
jurisdiction to hear the petitioner's claim and that G.L.
1956 § 45-19.1-1 created a conclusive presumption that
cancer in firefighters arises out of and in the course of
their employment as firefighters. The Municipal
Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island (respondent)
seeks reversal of the final decree entered by the WCC,
contending that the WCC did not have subject-matter
jurisdiction to hear the petitioner's claim and that
chapter 19.1 of title 45 of the general laws does not contain
such a conclusive presumption. For the reasons set forth in
this opinion, we affirm in part and quash in part the final
decree of the WCC.
Facts and Procedural History
pertinent facts in this case are not in dispute. Lang served
as a firefighter for the City of Cranston from 1996 until
September 2012, when his career was abruptly cut short after
he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The city placed Lang on
injured-on-duty status, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 45-19-1,
and he began receiving salary benefits while incapacitated
from work. In January 2014, he applied for accidental
disability benefits under G.L. 1956 § 45-21.2-9, based
upon his cancer diagnosis. In July 2015, the Retirement Board
of the Municipal Employees' Retirement System of Rhode
Island (the board) found that he did not prove that his
cancer arose out of and in the course of his employment as a
firefighter, and it therefore denied his application. The
board notified him of his right to appeal its decision to the
Superior Court; however, he appealed the decision to the WCC.
He alleged that § 45-21.2-9(f) provided the WCC with
subject-matter jurisdiction to hear his appeal.
respondent filed a motion to dismiss the appeal in the WCC
for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, arguing that
petitioner's appeal belonged in the Superior Court,
pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15 of the Administrative
Procedures Act. The trial judge denied respondent's
motion to dismiss and certified a question of law to this
Court regarding the interpretation of §§ 45-21.2-9
and 45-19.1-1. After careful consideration, this Court
declined to answer the question. The petitioner then filed a
motion for summary judgment in the WCC, arguing that,
pursuant to chapter 19.1 of title 45, all cancers contracted
by firefighters are presumed to be work-related. The trial
judge agreed with petitioner but found that factual issues
petitioner submitted three affidavits: one from Lang; one
from Raymond Chaquette, M.D., Lang's oncologist; and one
from William McKenna, the chief of the Cranston Fire
Department. The affidavits established that Lang had been
employed as a firefighter since 1996, was diagnosed with
colon cancer in September 2012, and was immediately placed on
injured-on-duty status because he was unable to work as a
firefighter. Lang also submitted the record of proceedings
before the board, along with its decision. Included in the
record of proceedings were the reports from five physicians,
including Dr. Chaquette. Although all five physicians agreed
that Lang was permanently disabled, none could state that
Lang's colon cancer resulted from exposures that occurred
while he was employed as a firefighter.
trial judge issued a written decision in which she reversed
the board, finding that § 45-19.1-1(b) creates a
conclusive presumption that all cancer in firefighters under
§ 45-19.1-1(a) arises out of and in the course of their
employment; she therefore granted Lang accidental disability
retirement benefits based upon his claim of occupational
cancer. The respondent appealed to the Appellate Division,
which, in a written decision, denied and dismissed the appeal
and affirmed the decision and decree of the trial judge. A
final decree was entered that affirmed the findings of fact
and orders contained in the decree entered by the trial
judge. The respondent filed a timely petition for writ of
certiorari, which this Court granted.
Standard of Review
review of a case on certiorari is limited to an examination
of the record to determine if an error of law has been
committed." Plante v. Stack, 109 A.3d 846, 853
(R.I. 2015) (quoting State v. Poulin, 66 A.3d 419,
423 (R.I. 2013)). "In addition to examining the record
for judicial error, we inspect the record to discern if there
is any legally competent evidence to support the findings of
the hearing justice below." Id. (quoting
Poulin, 66 A.3d at 423).
decide this [case], we must construe several statutory
provisions." Rose v. State, 92 A.3d 903, 906
(R.I. 2014). "We review questions of statutory
interpretation de novo." Bluedog Capital
Partners, LLC v. Murphy, 206 A.3d 694, 699 (R.I. 2019)
(quoting State v. Hazard, 68 A.3d 479, 485 (R.I.
2013)). "In so doing, 'our ultimate goal is to give
effect to the purpose of the act as intended by the
Legislature.'" Id. (quoting
Hazard, 68 A.3d at 485). "When the language of
a statute is clear and unambiguous, this Court must interpret
the statute literally and must give the words of the statute
their plain and ordinary meanings." In re B.H.,
194 A.3d 260, 264 (R.I. 2018) (brackets omitted) (quoting
State v. Santos, 870 A.2d 1029, 1032 (R.I. 2005)).
"If, however, the language of a statute is ambiguous,
this Court turns to 'our well-established maxims of
statutory construction in an effort to glean the intent of
the Legislature.'" Id. (quoting Town of
Warren v. Bristol Warren Regional School District, 159
A.3d 1029, 1039 (R.I. 2017)). "The Legislature is
presumed to have intended each word or provision of a statute
to express a significant meaning, and the Court will give
effect to every word, clause, or sentence, whenever
possible." Id. (brackets omitted) (quoting
State v. Clark, 974 A.2d 558, 571 (R.I. 2009)).
"As we have held, 'this Court will not construe a
statute to reach an absurd result.'" Id.
(brackets omitted) (quoting Long v. Dell, Inc., 984
A.2d 1074, 1081 (R.I. 2009)).
this Court is tasked with determining the interplay between
several statutory provisions to resolve this case, we provide
a brief review of those statutes. Generally, § 45-19-1
grants salary benefits to firefighters who have been injured
on duty. In 2011, the General Assembly amended § 45-19-1
to add subsection (j), which provides that any person
receiving such benefits shall apply for an accidental
disability retirement allowance within eighteen months of
their injury, or they risk losing their injured-on-duty
benefits. Subsection (2) of § 45-19-1(j) provides that a
person who has applied to receive an accidental disability
retirement allowance will continue to receive injured-on-duty
payments, but the right to those payments "shall
terminate in the event of a final ruling of the workers
compensation court allowing accidental disability
benefits." (Emphasis added.) Pertinent to this case,
§ 45-21.2-9, entitled "Retirement for accidental
disability," provides accidental disability retirement
allowance benefits to firefighters who are rendered
physically or mentally incapacitated as a result of injury
while in the line of duty. Also in 2011, the General Assembly
amended § 45-21.2-9 to add, inter alia,
subsection (f), which provides that "[i]n the event that
any party is aggrieved by the determination of the retirement
board pursuant to § 45-19-1, for an injury or
illness occurring on or after July 1, 2011, the party may
submit an appeal to the Rhode Island workers'
compensation court." (Emphasis added.) Finally, chapter 19.1
of title 45, entitled "Cancer Benefits for Fire
Fighters," provides certain benefits to firefighters who
have been diagnosed with a "disabling occupational
cancer[.]" Section 45-19.1-3(a).
respondent raises three arguments in support of its
contention that the WCC lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to
hear petitioner's appeal. We address each in turn.
"We have previously held that a challenge to
subject-matter jurisdiction questions the very power of the
court to hear the case." Sullivan v. Coventry
Municipal Employees' Retirement Plan, 203 A.3d 483,
487 (R.I. 2019) (quoting Retirement Board of
Employees' Retirement System of City of Providence v.
Corrente, 111 A.3d 301, 305 (R.I. 2015)).
"Subject-matter jurisdiction may not be waived by any
party and may be raised at any time in the proceedings."
Id. (quoting Corrente, 111 A.3d at 305).
"We review de novo whether a court has
subject-matter jurisdiction over a particular
controversy." Id. (quoting Corrente,
111 A.3d at 305).
respondent asserts that the Appellate Division of the WCC
erred when it affirmed the trial judge's determination
that the WCC had subject-matter jurisdiction over
petitioner's appeal from the board's decision.
According to respondent, the plain and unambiguous language
in § 45-21.2-9 vests the WCC with authority to hear
appeals from the board only when the board has rendered a
determination pursuant to § 45-19-1.
respondent avers that § 45-21.2-9(f) should be read in
isolation, and parses out the language in that section to
conclude that the unambiguous language provides that an
aggrieved party can appeal to the WCC only when the board has
rendered its decision "pursuant to §
45-19-1[.]" The respondent claims that, because the
board rendered the decision on petitioner's claim
pursuant to § 45-21.2-9, the WCC lacked jurisdiction to
hear petitioner's appeal.
Court has noted, however, that "the plain meaning
approach must not be confused with 'myopic
literalism'; even when confronted with a clear and
unambiguous statutory provision, it is entirely proper for us
to look to the sense and meaning fairly deducible from the
context." O'Connell v. Walmsley, 156 A.3d
422, 426 (R.I. 2017) (quoting Raiche v. Scott, 101
A.3d 1244, 1248 (R.I. 2014)). Additionally, "in so doing
we must not construe a statute in a way that would result in
absurdities or would defeat the underlying purpose of the
enactment." Id. at 428 (deletion omitted)
(quoting Commercial Union Insurance Co. v. Pelchat,
727 A.2d 676, 681 (R.I. 1999)).
adopt respondent's approach would render §
45-21.2-9(f) a nullity and would lead to an absurd result:
The board, as respondent points out, would not have the
ability to render decisions pursuant to § 45-19-1. The
respondent's interpretation would mean the General
Assembly created an appeal to the WCC that would have no
effect and would give the WCC no new jurisdiction whatsoever,
because the board will never render a decision pursuant to
§ 45-19-1. While we recognize that a strict reading of
§ 45-19-1 may suggest that the WCC lacks jurisdiction,
we decline to interpret it as such, because it would
"lead to a construction inconsistent with the manifest
intent of the General Assembly[.]"
O'Connell, 156 A.3d at 428 (brackets omitted).
45-19-1 and 45-21.2-9(f), when read in conjunction,
demonstrate the General Assembly's intent to cloak the
WCC with jurisdiction over appeals by aggrieved parties who
have applied for an accidental disability retirement
allowance pursuant to the time mandate contained in §
45-19-1(j) and were denied by the board. A reading of §
45-19-1(j) reveals that the statute clearly directs a person
collecting injured-on-duty benefits to "apply for an
accidental disability retirement allowance from the state
retirement board" as a claim under § 45-21.2-9.
Once the claim has been heard and the board has rendered a
decision, an aggrieved applicant can then appeal to the WCC
pursuant to § 45-21.2-9(f). Section 45-19-1(j)(2)
further illustrates the General Assembly's intent that
the WCC have jurisdiction over such appeals. That section
provides that the applicant will continue to receive
injured-on-duty benefits, but such benefits "shall
terminate in the event of a final ruling of the workers
compensation court allowing accidental disability
benefits." Section 45-19-1(j)(2) (emphasis added).
further support for this statutory interpretation in G.L.
1956 § 28-30-1(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act
(the act), which grants the WCC "jurisdiction that may
be necessary to carry out its duties under * * * the
provisions of the Rhode Island general law §
45-21.2-9[.]" For the General Assembly to grant the WCC
the jurisdiction necessary to carry out its duties under
§ 45-21.2-9, and for this Court to interpret §
45-21.2-9(f) as providing the WCC with no new jurisdiction
under that section, would disregard all sense of legislative
intent and would defeat the underlying purpose of the act.
See O'Connell, 156 A.3d at 426. Therefore, we
conclude that the General Assembly intended the ...