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Cozzone v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (PA Minicipal/East Goshen Township)

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 19, 2013

GINA COZZONE, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF ANDREW A. COZZONE, Appellant
v.
WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEAL BOARD (PA MUNICIPAL/EAST GOSHEN TOWNSHIP), Appellees

ARGUED: November 27, 2012.

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered on January 5, 2012 at 664 C.D. 2011, affirming the Order of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board entered on March 15, 2011 at No. A10-0391.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

OPINION

MR. CASTILLE, CHIEF JUSTICE.

This appeal presents an issue of statutory interpretation concerning Section 413(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act ("Act"), 77 P.S. § 772: specifically, whether the claimant/appellant[1] should have been permitted to proceed on a post-500-week petition for reinstatement of total disability benefits where he filed that petition within three years of his most recent payment of compensation, a payment which was made pursuant to a post-500-week supplemental agreement, notwithstanding a prior suspension of payments due to his return to work without a loss in earning capacity. In resolving this question, the Court is called upon to determine whether expiration of the 500-week period set forth within the Act (also referred to, infra, as a statute of repose) operates as a bar to the assertion of total disability claims by employees who have experienced a suspension of benefits; that determination requires the Court to examine the Commonwealth Court's decisional law in this area. Finally, to properly decide the case, we must examine the effect of payments made pursuant to supplemental agreements upon an otherwise expired workers' compensation claim. The Commonwealth Court below affirmed the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board's ("WCAB") reversal of a Workers' Compensation Judge's ("WCJ") decision granting appellant's reinstatement and penalty petitions. For reasons that follow, we hold that appellant's reinstatement petition was not timely filed. Accordingly, we affirm the order of the Commonwealth Court, albeit for different reasons.

I.

On January 24, 1989, appellant sustained serious back injuries when he fell through a roof in the course of his employment with East Goshen Township ("Township"). On February 6, 1989, the Township issued a notice of compensation payable pursuant to which appellant received total disability benefits until he returned to his pre-injury position on September 20, 1989, with no loss of earnings. Over thirteen years later, on May 19, 2003, the parties entered into an agreement reinstating appellant's total disability benefits from February 24, 2003, to March 17, 2003. His total disability benefits were then reinstated again from June 17, 2005, to August 29, 2005. And on June 20, 2007, his total disability benefits were once again reinstated. On November 27, 2007, appellant began working in a modified-duty position for a different employer as a result of which the parties entered into an agreement on January 7, 2008, reducing appellant's benefits status from total to partial disability. Appellant worked for his new employer until January 24, 2008, at which time he felt that he was no longer capable of performing his modified duties.

On September 26, 2008, appellant filed the underlying reinstatement petition, seeking a modification of his disability status from partial to total disability effective January 24, 2008. On January 25, 2009, the Township ceased making the partial disability payments due according to the January 7, 2008 agreement, raising the issue at a hearing before a WCJ on the following day, January 26, 2009. On February 25, 2009, appellant filed a penalty petition stating that the Township violated the Act by unilaterally ceasing payments. The two petitions were consolidated.

On February 25, 2010, the WCJ granted appellant's reinstatement petition, finding appellant to be credible, and crediting the deposition testimony of appellant's medical expert, a physician board certified in pain management, that appellant was no longer able to perform the modified-duty position upon which his change from total to partial disability status was predicated. The WCJ also granted appellant's penalty petition, concluding that the Township violated the Act by unilaterally ceasing payments due under the January 7, 2008 agreement.[2]

After the WCAB reversed the WCJ's decision, the Commonwealth Court affirmed that reversal in a 2-1 split-decision holding that appellant's reinstatement petition was untimely filed beyond the 500-week period for which compensation was payable to appellant under the Act, specifically Section 306(b) of the Act, 77 P.S. § 512, and Section 413(a) of the Act. Cozzone v. WCAB (PA Municipal/East Goshen), 41 A.3d 105 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012). The majority stated:

[B]ecause [appellant]'s benefits were suspended due to [appellant]'s return to his pre-injury position without a loss of earnings, Section 413(a) of the Act's 500–week statute of repose, not its three-year statute of limitations, governs the outcome of this case. Having been filed beyond the 500– week period, therefore, [appellant]'s reinstatement petition is time-barred by Section 413(a) of the Act's statute of repose.

Cozzone, 41 A.3d at 112-13. The court further held that appellant was not entitled to penalties under the Act for his employer's unilateral cessation of payment, because appellant's "right to compensation was completely extinguished by the expiration of Section 413(a) of the Act's 500–week statute of repose[, ]" notwithstanding the supplemental agreement dated January 7, 2008, providing for payment of partial disability benefits. Id. The court reasoned that under Sharon Steel Corp. v. WCAB (Myers), 670 A.2d 1194 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996), the agreement had no bearing on appellant's right to compensation under the Act, because "a supplemental agreement entered into after the expiration of a statute of repose is void and unenforceable, and cannot resurrect the claimant's claim." Cozzone, 41 A.3d at 113 (citing Sharon Steel, 670 A.2d at 1197-98).

In the dissenting opinion, Judge (now President Judge) Pellegrini stated his belief that the July 7, 2008, supplemental agreement remains valid until terminated by supplemental agreement between the parties, a final receipt, or by a WCJ/WCAB order. He noted that he would reverse the WCAB's decision because appellant was last paid on June 20, 2007, and his reinstatement petition was timely filed with respect to that date. Id. at 116. The dissenting view does not directly address the Commonwealth Court majority's conclusion concerning prior expiration of the Act's 500–week statute of repose.

II.

We granted discretionary review recognizing the apparent tension between the Commonwealth Court's opinion and observations in this Court's opinion in Stewart v. WCAB (PA Glass Sand/US Silica), 756 A.2d 655 (Pa. 2000). The issues accepted for review are:

(1) Whether the Commonwealth Court erred as a matter of law when it held that appellant's petition to reinstate was barred by § 413(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act, 77 P.S. § 772, when he filed the petition within three (3) years from the last date of payment of compensation paid pursuant to a supplemental agreement, payments were ongoing when appellant filed the petition to reinstate, and East Goshen Township unilaterally ceased payments while the petition was pending?
(2) Whether the Commonwealth Court committed an error of law when it held that East Goshen Township did not violate the Act and thereby denied appellant's penalty petition when the Township unilaterally ceased payment of compensation on January 25, 2009 after it had entered into a supplemental agreement providing for payment of partial disability at the rate of $318.52 effective November 28, 2007 and there was no order of the WCJ or agreement of appellant suspending payment?

A.

Respecting appellant's first issue, although we do not embrace the reasoning of the Commonwealth Court in its entirety, we agree with its ultimate conclusion that appellant's petition to reinstate was barred by Section 413(a) of the Act, because appellant's statutory right to workers' compensation benefits expired prior to the filing of his reinstatement petition.

The reasoning of the Commonwealth Court majority is relatively straightforward. The court concluded that since appellant's benefits were suspended on September 20, 1989, when appellant returned to his pre-injury position without a loss of earnings, the Township was entitled to a suspension of appellant's compensation payments as of that date, by operation of law, and notwithstanding the lack of any supplemental agreement or WCJ's order establishing that suspension. The court reasoned that given the effective date of the suspension, appellant had until approximately April of 1999, i.e., 500 weeks (or nine and one half years) from the date of the suspension, to file a reinstatement petition before his right to benefits was completely extinguished according to Section 413(a) of the Act. Appellant, however, did not file his reinstatement petition within those 500 weeks, and, in fact, did not file it until September 26, 2008 -- more than nine years after expiration of the allotted 500-week period. Thus, the Commonwealth Court held, because appellant's reinstatement petition was filed beyond the 500-week period, the petition is time-barred by Section 413(a)'s 500-week statute of repose.

Appellant argues that the Commonwealth Court erred as a matter of law, misinterpreting and/or misapplying Section 413(a) in concluding that his reinstatement petition is barred by the 500-week statute of repose. Appellant notes that he filed his petition within three years of his most recent compensation payment, a filing which is permitted by the plain meaning of the first proviso of Section 413(a), which appellant argues provides a three-year filing window from the last payment of compensation, even if compensation had previously been suspended for a period of time. Alternatively, appellant argues that his petition is not barred by the 500-week statute of repose because the Township voluntarily reinstated compensation subsequent to the expiration date for his claim. Along these lines, appellant notes that he filed his petition within three years of his most recent ...


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