Connecticut High Court Nixes Workers’ Comp for Firefighter with Heart Condition

By Andrew G. Simpson | June 28, 2023

A firefighter must be shown to have worked 20 or more hours a week to be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under state law, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled in reversing an appeals court and state workers’ compensation officials.

The high court overturned a 2021 appellate court decision that affirmed orders of the Compensation Review Board and a workers’ compensation commissioner that the town of Waterford must accept a claim filed by firefighter Christopher A. Clark for heart disease benefits.

The statute (§ 7-433c.1) excludes from benefits “members” who customarily work less than 20 hours a week if they entered municipal employment after September 30, 1969. The high court agreed with the town that the appellate court incorrectly concluded that the definition of “member” in the general statutes governing retirement and other benefits for police and firefighters does not apply to workers’ compensation benefits.

The high court found the term “member” does apply. The high court also found that the previous proceedings never determined how many hours Clark worked.

The town originally hired Clark as a part-time firefighter in 1992, prior to which he passed a physical examination that revealed no evidence of heart disease or hypertension. In 1997, the town hired him as a full-time firefighter, and, in 2017, he suffered a myocardial infarction and underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

Clark filed a claim seeking workers’ compensation for his heart disease, which the town contested as non-compensable on the ground that the plaintiff had not been employed as a full-time firefighter until 1997 and, therefore, did not qualify for benefits in light of the law.

Clark testified that, while employed as a part-time firefighter, he worked assigned shifts, and the number of shifts he was assigned to work was irregular, but he did not indicate the number of hours he customarily worked.

The town reasoned that benefits are available only to a “uniformed member of a paid municipal fire department” hired prior to July 1, 1996, the term “member” excludes persons who customarily work less than 20 hours per week. Because the plaintiff failed to establish that he customarily worked 20 hours or more per week when he was employed as a part-time firefighter, he was not eligible for benefits, the town argued.

However, the commissioner rejected the town’s claim and ordered it to accept the plaintiff’s myocardial infarction as compensable. In doing so, the commissioner made no finding as to the number of hours the plaintiff worked per week as a part-time firefighter. Instead, the commissioner noted that the law does not define the phrase “uniformed member of a paid municipal fire department” or distinguish between part-time and full-time employment. The commissioner applied the common definition of the word “member” in concluding that the plaintiff’s date of employment was in 1992 and that he therefore was entitled to benefits.

The state review board upheld the commissioner’s award of benefits, and the town appealed to the appellate court, which affirmed the board’s decision. In its ruling, the appellate court also concluded that the town’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result that benefits are available only to uniformed firefighters employed and paid by municipalities that participate in the state retirement fund.

The Supreme Court has now reversed, finding that when considered in context, the language of the law shows that the meaning of the word “member” is “clearly and unambiguously” controlled by the language that also references those employees who are members of the retirement plan.

The high court was convinced by a presumption that lawmakers created a “harmonious and consistent” body of law, as well as by the absence of legislative history showing that lawmakers did not intend the definition of “member” to apply to workers’ compensation benefits.

The court said that lawmakers could have provided different language in the workers’ compensation benefits section of the law but did not. It also found that the connection makes sense in “view of the logical and factual relationship between heart and hypertension benefits and retirement benefits.”

The high court dismissed the appeals court’s concern that this construction of the statutory text could lead to results unintended by the legislature, writing “that was not a reason to depart from the plain and unambiguous statutory text, as the legislature was free to clarify the meaning of § 7-433c if it desired to make it plain that any paid firefighter is eligible for benefits under that statute.”

Clark was entitled to have the commissioner decide that factual issue of whether he had customarily worked 20 hours or more per week before being hired as a full- time firefighter, and, accordingly, the high court remanded the case for further proceedings.

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