Monday, January 16, 2017

Third Appellate District Upholds Award of Penalties for Late Advance Disability Pension Payments

In the recently decided Gage v. Workers Compensation Appeals Board, (CA3, Nov. 22, 2016 No. C081618)  the Court upheld the ability for employees to receive penalties for late advance disability pension payments. In this case, a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy, represented by Greg Gomez of Mastagni Holstedt, APC, sustained a job-related injury and applied for an industrial disability retirement. In cases like these involving peace officers, the injured party can also apply for advance disability pension payments in order to cover living expenses while the disability retirement application is being decided.

Here, Gage petitioned for these advance payments and applied for industrial disability retirement on March 6, 2015. When payments did not arrive, Gage petitioned for late payment penalties against the County on June 2. The County claimed not to have received the application until June 11. The County also asserted that the Workers Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) did not have authority over advance payments of pension because that would fall under another a different law (County Employees Retirement Law of 1937), and thus it could not apply penalties.

While this issue was being decided, the County continued to stall payments due to some additional technicalities (legal joinder). On June 29, it finally approved payment of benefits. Gage filed a petition for penalties because the benefit check wouldn’t arrive until July 2, almost 4 months after her initial request.

A workers compensation judge initially agreed with Gage that disability pension payments were considered compensation, and thus were subject to penalties for late payment. The County appealed arguing that advance pension disability payments were an obligation of the retirement system, and thus not subject to the penalty. On appeal, the WCAB overturned the workers compensation judge’s initial decision.

When the case was finally appealed to the Third Appellate District, the Court explained that the workers compensation law was intended to be liberally construed for the purpose of extending benefits to those injured in the course of employment. This includes making sure that those in law enforcement are given all the rights attendant to the workers compensation law. The advance disability pension payments are specifically provided to help officers who would otherwise have difficulty making the monthly bills if they had no income due to being injured. In fact, the payment of such benefits was made mandatory in 2002.

The Court also discredited the County’s argument that under the applicable code section, the repayment of retirement benefits was outside of WCAB’s jurisdiction. The Court stated that while the repayment of retirement benefits once disability retirement was approved was outside the scope of the WCAB’s jurisdiction, that did not bar it from asserting penalties on late payments, because such payments are considered compensation and therefore fall under WCAB’s jurisdiction. While the court remanded the case to determine if the delay in this case was sufficiently unreasonable such that penalties were required, this case still stands as a big win for employees seeking disability retirement. Mastagni Holstedt, APC is requesting that this case be published so that it has precedential value.

Mastagni Holstedt, APC is privileged to have represented the Sacramento Deputy Sheriffs Association and Ms. Gage in obtaining this important result. Greg Gomez of Mastagni Holstedt, APC represented Ms. Gage in this matter.