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Lang v. Municipal Employees' Retirement System

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 18, 2019

Corrine A. Lang as Executrix of the Estate of Kevin Lang
v.
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

          For Petitioner: James E. Kelleher, Esq.

          For Respondent: Michael P. Robinson, Esq. Christopher J. Fragomeni, Esq. John H. McCann, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          GILBERT V. INDEGLIA JUSTICE

         This 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).[1] 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.

         I Facts and Procedural History

         The 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.

         The 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 remained.

         The 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.

         The 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.

         II Standard of Review

         "Our 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).

         "To 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)).

         III Discussion

         Because 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."[2] (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).

         A Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         The 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).

         1

         First, 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.

         The 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.

         This 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)).

         To 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).

         Sections 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).

         We find 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 ...


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