Employment Law Alert: Context Cancels Cop’s Claim

When an industrially injured police officer sought workers’ compensation temporary total disability benefits at the maximum rate afforded to volunteer officers injured in the course of duty, the California Court of Appeal said no in John Larkin v. WCAB, and the City of Marysville, January 28, 2014, C065891. The decision required the court to eschew the plain language of the statute and to instead rely on the context of the section and the intention of the compensation scheme.

John Larkin suffered multiple injuries while regularly employed as a police officer for the City of Marysville. Officer Larkin and the City agreed that as a result of the injuries he was entitled to receive temporary total disability benefits. However, they disagreed over the amount of the benefits. Temporary total disability is generally paid at two-thirds of the average weekly wage up to a statutory maximum (Labor Code Section 4653). At the same time, California Labor Code section 4458.2 provides “if an active peace officer of any department as described in Section 3362 suffers injury or death while in the performance of his or her duties as a peace officer, . . .then, irrespective of his or her remuneration from this or other employment or from both, his or her average weekly earnings . . . shall be taken at the maximum. . . .” Labor Code section 3362 also provides that officers registered as active with “‚Ķany regularly organized police department . . shall be entitled to receive compensation . . . .” Officer Larkin argued that reading sections 3362 and 4458.2 together leads to the conclusion that he, and every police officer, is entitled to have temporary disability benefits paid at the maximum rate regardless of the average weekly wage being paid.

The court emphasized that its role was to harmonize “provisions relating to the same subject matter . . . to the extent possible.” Here it looked to the context of section 3362 and noted that it falls within Article 2, which sets out who is and who is not a covered employee for workers’ compensation. The court pointed out that section 4564 is adjacent to code sections dealing with special cases of volunteers injured while undertaking duties on behalf of various municipal agencies and in various special circumstances. Though there is nothing in section 3362 that limits its scope to a volunteer or special circumstance, the court finds that if the section is intended for regularly employed police officers, then there is no section to protect volunteer police. The court concluded that as there is no dispute that officer Larkin was a regular employee, “there is no reason to have a special statute deeming an active duty peace officer to be an employee.” In response to officer Larkin’s argument that the plain language of the statute leaves no room for interpretation and that “an active police officer is entitled to temporary disability at the maximum rate, irrespective of his actual wage,” the court replied “This would be an absurd result.”

Safety workers are accorded a special status in California’s workers’ compensation scheme and generally are entitled to up to a year of full salary in lieu of temporary total disability benefits. When the temporary disability status extends beyond a year, the qualified officer receives temporary total disability calculated by the same formula applicable to all other injured workers.

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January 31, 2014