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Ferrel v. Montana State Fund

Court of Workers Compensation of Montana

May 3, 2017

SILKITWA "SCOUT" FERREL Petitioner
v.
MONTANA STATE FUND Respondent/Insurer.

          Submitted: December 17, 2015

          ORDER GRANTING PETITIONER'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING RESPONDENT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          DAVID M. SANDLER JUDGE.

         Summary: Petitioner and Respondent move for summary judgment on stipulated facts on three issues: (1) At the time Respondent terminated Petitioner's PTD benefits, was Petitioner receiving benefits "from a system that is an alternative to social security retirement" within the meaning of § 39-71-710(1), MCA? (2) If Petitioner was receiving benefits "from a system that is an alternative to social security retirement, " is State Fund's termination of Ferrel's PTD benefits barred by the equitable defense(s) of estoppel and/or laches? (3) If State Fund's termination of Ferrel's PTD benefits is not barred by estoppel and/or laches, is § 39-71-710(1), MCA, constitutional?

         Held: Because Petitioner's receipt of retirement benefits from the Montana Highway Patrol Officers' Retirement System does not preclude her from receiving them from Social Security when she is age-eligible, and she is not collecting retirement benefits from the Montana Highway Patrol Officers' Retirement System instead of collecting them from Social Security, Petitioner was not receiving benefits "from a system that is an alternative to social security retirement" within the meaning of § 39-71-710(1), MCA. Thus, Respondent incorrectly determined that Petitioner was "retired, " and is liable for her PTD benefits from the time it terminated those benefits.

         ¶ 1 Petitioner Silkitwa "Scout" Ferrel and Respondent Montana State Fund (State Fund) submit this matter on stipulated facts and cross-motions for summary judgment. This Court restates the following facts from the parties' Statement of Stipulated Facts.

         Stipulated Facts

         ¶ 2 Ferrel was sworn into the Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) on January 13, 1992.

         ¶ 3 While working with the MHP on January 22, 2000, Ferrel was involved in a physical altercation at the end of a high-speed pursuit. She was seriously injured while making the arrest.

         ¶ 4 After her efforts to recover failed, Ferrel was physically incapable of returning to work and retired from the MHP on December 27, 2002. She sought disability retirement benefits from the Montana Highway Patrol Officers' Retirement System (HPORS), which were granted to her on or about January 24, 2003.[1]

         ¶ 5 State Fund paid Ferrel temporary total disability benefits from August 12, 2003, through August 25, 2003, and again from August 29, 2005, through March 10, 2007, until it declared Ferrel permanently totally disabled on or about March 11, 2007. At that point, State Fund began paying Ferrel permanent total disability (PTD) benefits without any offset.

         ¶ 6 HPORS converted Ferrel's disability retirement benefits to regular retirement benefits when she turned 50 on March 3, 2003. Ferrel's monthly benefit amount did not change as a result of the conversion.

         ¶ 7 State Fund determined that Ferrel would be "retired" when she started receiving HPORS retirement benefits, which it considered "an alternative to social security retirement" benefits. State Fund notified Ferrel on February 4, 2011, that when she turned 60 and HPORS converted her benefits from disability retirement to regular retirement, State Fund would terminate her workers' compensation benefits. The letter did not recognize that HPORS had already converted the benefits in 2003.

         ¶ 8 After sending a 14-day termination letter, State Fund terminated Ferrel's PTD benefits on February 28, 2013. State Fund acknowledged that Ferrel's disability benefits had been converted to retirement benefits at some earlier time, and that PTD benefits should not have been paid from the time that Ferrel first received retirement benefits. However, it stated that it would not retroactively seek repayment of PTD benefits paid from her date of conversion to retirement benefits.

         ¶ 9 Prior to her work for the MHP, Ferrel worked for the U.S. Forest Service. During that time, she paid into the Social Security retirement system and accumulated sufficient credits to entitle her to future Social Security retirement benefits.

         ¶ 10 Members of HPORS do not pay into the Social Security retirement system while they are employed with the MHP. And, during the time Ferrel worked as an MHP Officer, she did not concurrently work in another job in which she paid into the Social Security retirement system.

         ¶ 11 When Ferrel turns 66, she will be eligible to collect her full Social Security retirement benefits. According to her last correspondence from the Social Security Administration, Ferrel expects she will earn $477 per month when she reaches full retirement age.

         Law and Analysis

         ¶ 12 This case is governed by the 1999 version of the Montana Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) since that was the law in effect at the time of Ferrel's industrial accident.[2]

         ¶ 13 This Court grants summary judgment when the moving party demonstrates an absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.[3] The material facts necessary for disposition of this case are undisputed. Accordingly, this case is susceptible to summary disposition.

         ¶ 14 The parties present three issues: (1) At the time State Fund terminated her PTD benefits, was Ferrel receiving benefits "from a system that is an alternative to social security retirement" within the meaning of § 39-71-710(1), MCA? (2) If Ferrel was receiving benefits "from a system that is an alternative to social security retirement, " is State Fund's termination of her PTD benefits barred by the equitable defense(s) of estoppel and/or laches? (3) If State Fund's termination of Ferrel's PTD benefits is not barred by estoppel and/or laches, is ...


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