On March 5, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan issued an Executive Order declaring a State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor issued periodic updates to the Order at various points after that. Under one of such updates, issued under date of March 12, 2020, the governor empowered the heads of Maryland’s courts and administrative agencies to toll or suspend legal time requirements in recognition of the difficulty faced by the judicial system in adjudicating claims – particularly during periods of lockdown.
Pursuant to that authority, and the emergency powers granted to the chairman of the Commission under COMAR 14.09.17.03A, Commissioner R. Karl Aumann issued Administrative Order 2020-02, whereby the chairman ordered, in relevant part, that “all statutory and regulation deadlines related to the initiation of matters required to be filed with the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission, including statute of limitations, shall be tolled or suspended, as applicable, effective nunc pro tunc March 16, 2020, by the number of days that the commission remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 emergency by order of the chairman of the Commission.” It was further ordered that, “such deadlines further shall be extended by a period of 30 days beyond the end of the state of emergency, as evidenced by an order reopening the commission to receive in person at its Baltimore office.”
The commission remained closed to the public for 472 days before reopening effective June 30, 2021, pursuant to a second administrative order entitled “Administrative Order 2021-01 Ending Timeframe Suspension and Rescinding Administrative Order 2020-02” (See above) issued by the chairman under date of March 25, 2021. Pursuant to that order, the “Timeframe Suspensions” – including statutes of limitations, were lifted and no longer in effect, effective June 30, 2021. The order allows a 30-day extension for the filing of applicable claims to be considered timely and will relate back to the date before the expiration of the applicable time limit for the same.
In the ordinary course, claim applications for accidental personal injury, death from accidental personal injury, disablement or death from an occupational disease, and claims for readjusting or “worsening” are subject to statutes of limitations under the Labor & Employment Article, Title 9, Sections 709, 710, 711, and 736. Generally, the statute of limitations begins to run from the date of the work injury or onset of occupational disease, provided that the first report of injury is filed. Unless a claim for benefits as a result of said injury or occupational disease is filed with the commission by an injured worker or its representative within the timeframe prescribed, then the same would be barred under the applicable statute. Claims filed outside of the prescribed period are denied and/or contested by carriers and counsel.
The effect of the two aforementioned administrative orders, however, may complicate this rather routine practice. Carriers and counsel evaluating an Employee Claim Form must now account for the period of “timeframe suspensions” during which the statute of limitations for initiating new claims was tolled. Practically speaking, what that means is this: in evaluating a claim for benefits, if the statute of limitations for the same would have “expired” at any time during the period beginning March 15, 2020, and ending June 30, 2021, then the carrier and/or counsel will need to undertake an additional analysis to determine whether or not the claim was/is timely filed pursuant to the terms of Administrative Order 2020-02.
While clarification on the application and operation of the tolling period and timeframe suspensions as it relates to the commission has yet to be provided, the Court of Appeals included the following example of how the statute of limitations tolling period operates as applied under similar orders suspending legal time limits at that level: “If two (2) days remained for the filing of a new matter on March 15, 2020, then two (2) days would have remained upon the reopening of the offices of the clerks of the court to the public on July 20, 2020. With the additional fifteen (15) days [extension for timely filing], seventeen (17) days would be left for a timely filing beginning July 20, 2020.”
It follows then that in the case of a claim filed for benefits with two days remaining for the timely filing of that matter as of March 15, 2020, two days would have remained upon the reopening of the commission to the public effective June 30, 2021. With the additional 30 days provided pursuant to Administrative Order 2021-01, then 32 days would be left for a timely filing, beginning June 30, 2021.
The effects of the COVID-19 tolling period are being felt at the commission with claims that would have otherwise been barred, being accepted for compensation. Though not an issue yet faced by the commission of this state, of note, administrative orders such as those issued by the chairman have faced legal challenges in other states. The primary cause of action in such suits challenges the authority of an administrative agency, such as the commission, to alter or amend statutory laws – a task generally left to the state legislature.
Written by associate Kara Parker.