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Bingnear v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board

November 19, 2008

ROBERT BINGNEAR, PETITIONER
v.
WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEAL BOARD (CITY OF CHESTER), RESPONDENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Flaherty

Submitted: September 8, 2008

BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Before this Court is an appeal of Robert Bingnear (Claimant) from an order of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Board) dated January 5, 2008. The Board held that the City of Chester (Employer) was permitted through its Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to reduce Claimant's pension benefits in an amount equal to 100% of Claimant's workers' compensation benefits. We vacate the Board's order and remand for the reasons that follow.

Claimant filed a Petition to Review Benefit Offset. No specific allegations are contained in the Petition. The record contains a document entitled "Article 143- Police Pension Fund" and a copy of the CBA between the City of Chester and the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge # 19. Article XXIII of the CBA expressly states "The City can claim as an offset from the aforesaid pension the following items: (a) 100% of whatever workers' compensation benefits the retired police officer is receiving as a result of his or her service-connected disability."*fn1 (Emphasis added). Also included in the record is an affidavit indicating that Jerome Jones, a claimant in another matter with similar facts, is receiving a monthly pension of $3,891.04. There is no verbal testimony of record. Moreover, no record was made for the two hearings held in this matter.

The WCJ issued a decision on April 5, 2007 disposing of Claimant's Review Petition. The WCJ indicated that Claimant was alleging Employer, specifically the "City of Chester," was taking an improper credit in relation to his pension benefits. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 65a. The WCJ further specified that "[i]n this Petition the Claimant alleges that the City of Chester is reducing the disability pension benefits in an amount equal to the amount of workers' compensation benefits he is receiving."*fn2 Id. The WCJ reviewed the CBA submitted by Employer. He stated that the CBA reads that a police officer who is injured in the line of duty is entitled to a service-connected disability pension equal to 100% of the officer's earnings for the fifty-two weeks immediately preceding his injury. The WCJ added that the CBA allows Employer to reduce a claimant's pension benefits in an amount equal to 100% of the workers' compensation benefits the claimant is receiving for his service-connected disability. The WCJ found that the relevant provisions of the CBA were contrary to the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act (Act), Act of June 2, 1915, P.L. 736, as amended, 77 P.S. §§ 1 - 1041.4, 2501-2708, and were not binding. Moreover, he stated the CBA cannot supersede the Act. He granted Petitioner's Review Petition and held that any offset taken by Employer must be done in accordance with the Act. The WCJ concluded Employer "is entitled to an offset of workers' compensation benefits from the pension funds received by the Claimant to the extent that they are funded by the City of Chester." R.R. at 66a.

The Board reversed in an opinion dated January 25, 2008. The Board found that Section 450(a) of the Act, added by the Act of June 24, 1996, P.L. 350, 77 P.S. §1000.6, permits agreements allowing for benefits that supplement the Act and prohibits those that diminish a claimant's right to workers' compensation benefits.*fn3 It stated that the CBA is not contrary to Section 450 of the Act because "it is not an agreement that diminishes Claimant's entitlement to workers' compensation benefits. Rather, it is an agreement that diminishes his right to receive pension benefits." R.R. at 81a. Noting that the workers' compensation benefits paid by Employer remained unchanged and that Section 450 of the Act preserves the parties' ability to collectively bargain over supplemental benefits, the Board reversed the WCJ's grant of Claimant's Review Petition. This appeal followed.*fn4

Claimant argues that the WCJ's order should be reinstated. Claimant contends that Employer should be precluded from reducing his pension benefits by 100% of his workers' compensation benefits when it only funded 31.73% of the pension benefits.*fn5 Finally, Claimant asserts that while the Board found Employer's CBA does not reduce his workers' compensation benefits but rather his pension benefits, such an argument is one of semantics and the practical effect is to reduce his workers' compensation benefits.*fn6

Prior to addressing Claimant's arguments, we must address Employer's contention that the WCJ lacked jurisdiction to resolve any disputes regarding the CBA.

Section 401 of the Act, 77 P.S. §401, provides that WCJs are to conduct hearings under the Act. The amount of workers' compensation benefits a claimant receives is within the jurisdiction of the WCJ and the Board. See Hendricks v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Phoenix Pipe & Tube), 909 A.2d 445 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006)(holding that where successive counsel had fee agreements requiring different percentages of compensation to be paid to counsel, the WCJ had jurisdiction to resolve a fee dispute as the resolution of that dispute affected the amount of ongoing benefits the claimant was due to receive). The workers' compensation authorities' responsibilities include guarding the workers' compensation system. Id. at 456. Neither the Board, nor a WCJ, however, has subject matter jurisdiction over proceedings that relate to benefits other than workers' compensation benefits. Mayo v. Department of Public Welfare, 680 A.2d 1 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996). The interpretation of a CBA is generally reserved for a grievance arbitrator. Pennsylvania State Troopers Ass'n v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, 804 A.2d 1291 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002). Where the WCJ is responsible for addressing an alleged entitlement under the Act, he may be permitted to rule upon questions that would ordinarily be outside his jurisdiction. See, e.g., Rossa v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (City of Phila.), 576 Pa. 349, 839 A.2d 256 (2003)(holding that a WCJ does have the authority to determine paternity for the purposes of determining eligibility of a child for benefits upon the filing of a fatal claim petition).

Moreover, the mere existence of a CBA does not preclude a WCJ from adjudicating a petition filed concerning the receipt of workers' compensation benefits. See Department of Corrections v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Clark), 824 A.2d 1241 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003)(whereupon this Court observed that requiring the employer to comply with a compromise and release agreement did not require the WCJ to interpret any section of the CBA).

An approach similar to the one followed in Clark was utilized in Mosites Constr. Co. v. Workmen's Compensation Appeal Board (Marshall), 641 A.2d 1291 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1994), where the WCJ utilized the figure contained in the CBA to determine the claimant's average weekly wage. The employer argued that the claimant's average weekly wage should be based on the wages actually earned rather than the language contained in the CBA. Id. at 1292. Moreover, it asserted the workers' compensation authorities had no jurisdiction over the "wage dispute" as this was a matter of a private contract. Id. at 1293-4. This Court, rejecting the employer's arguments, indicated that the claimant's pre-injury wage was clearly established by the CBA, that no interpretation of a private contract was required, and that all that was required was to apply the wages to which the claimant was entitled. Id. at 1294.

We disagree with Employer that the WCJ lacked jurisdiction to entertain Claimant's Review Petition. There can be no disagreement that the interpretation of a CBA is generally left to an arbitrator through the filing of a grievance. Pa. State Troopers Ass'n. Claimant argues that while he is receiving both workers' compensation benefits and pension benefits, an offset is being taken in an amount greater than that authorized by the Act. Furthermore, he posits that while the specified pension offset may be authorized by the CBA, the overall effect is to reduce the amount he receives in workers' compensation benefits. He reasons that whether you reduce his pension benefits or his workers' compensation benefits, he is still receiving less benefits than he would ordinarily be entitled to under the Act. Essentially, he contends that Employer is making a distinction without a difference. Claimant's argument concerns his entitlement to workers' compensation benefits and the amount of those benefits. WCJs and the Board are charged with guarding the workers' compensation system. Consistent with Hendricks and Rossa, jurisdiction lies with the workers' compensation authorities.

Moreover, as indicated in the WCJ's April 5, 2007 decision, the CBA provides that Employer can offset Claimant's pension in an amount equal to 100% of the workers' compensation benefits he is receiving for his work-related injury. This situation appears to be similar to the one presented in Marshall. Whether it is ultimately determined that such an offset is or is not permitted by the Act, the WCJ was not really required to interpret language contained in the CBA. Rather, he simply relied on the express language contained ...


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