Johnson v. The Home Depot USA, Inc., et al.

Summary:  In what the Law Court calls an “unusual case,” the Court affirmed the suspension of workers’ compensation benefits where the employee had been missing since March 2012. The hearing officer first ordered the employee’s benefits be paid into an escrow account pending an October 2012 hearing, and following the hearing, to suspend her benefits altogether pending her reappearance. Her attorney appealed on her behalf to the Appellate Division, which affirmed the hearing officer’s decision. The Law Court then granted the employee attorney’s petition for review.

Before the Law Court, the employee’s attorney argued the hearing officer lacked authority to grant the employer/insurer’s petition for review because it was not served “to the other parties named in the petition” (i.e., the employee herself) in accordance with 39-A M.R.S. § 307(2), and he had no authority to accept service on her behalf. However, the Law Court found that “in this highly unusual situation,” the hearing officer reasonably exercised her broad authority to interpret ambiguous language in the Act to find § 307(2) was satisfied by service on the long-missing employee’s attorney.

The Law Court also affirmed the panel’s decision to uphold the order that benefits be paid into an escrow account pending the October 2012 hearing, and suspended after the hearing pending the employee’s reappearance. The Court cited its previous recognition of “gray areas” in the Workers’ Compensation Act which “the Legislature knew would require ‘flexible and realistic solutions’”:

Here, by first segregating Johnson’s benefits for her future use, and then only suspending the payment of benefits with a proviso that they would be available retroactively if she later claimed them, the hearing officer protected both Home Depot’s legitimate interest in stopping payments that were not being received by its employee, and Johnson’s interest in collecting her full benefits if she is able to receive them in the future. That thoughtful and compassionate solution in light of these difficult circumstances is not error.