What a Difference a Word Makes!

PA Criminal Defendant Who Can’t Make Bond is Not Disqualified From Benefits.

Stressing that a provision within the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act [77 Pa. Stat. § 511.1] that requires suspension of benefits for the period during which an injured worker is incarcerated “after a conviction” [emphasis added], a state appellate court held that the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board committed error when it determined that a claimant, who spent 525 days in jail awaiting his trial, should be disqualified from receiving benefits for that time period [Sadler v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Phila. Coca-Cola), 2019 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 469 (May 22, 2019)]. The court acknowledged that upon the claimant’s criminal trial, he pled guilty, was convicted, and sentenced to 525 days of incarceration, but stressed the claimant had been released upon such conviction—the judge credited the claimant with “time served.” Thus, the claimant had not been incarcerated after the conviction. The forfeiture statute did not apply.

Background

The WCJ concluded that the employer was entitled to reimbursement—via a petition to the Supersedeas Fund—for benefits paid to the claimant during the 525 days claimant was incarcerated. The Board affirmed in relevant part.

Employer’s Contentions

The employer maintained that benefits were properly suspended. The employer argued that once claimant was sentenced to 525 days of incarceration upon his guilty plea, that time, credited as time served, converted to incarceration for conviction for his crime. The employer also contended that to interpret the statute otherwise would operate as a windfall to claimant since he would receive compensation for a loss of earning power that was not the result of his work-related injury.

Statute Says What the Statute Says

Acknowledging the employer’s argument, the court countered that the statute was clear. The best indication of the General Assembly’s intent is the plain language of the statute, said the court. It added that the court should be vigilant not to supply, under the guise of interpretation, words the General Assembly had omitted.

The court observed that claimant had been incarcerated before his conviction because he was unable to make $150,000 bail. The court stressed that under the plain unambiguous language of Section 306(a.1), claimant’s benefits could not be suspended during this period. For the court to deem claimant’s pretrial incarceration as having occurred after his conviction, because he received credit against his post-conviction sentence for the time he spent incarcerated before his conviction, would require that the court supply a word the General Assembly chose to omit. The court refused to do so.

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