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Petitioner James Thomas, a retired Maryland State Police officer, applied for special disability retirement benefits after being found guilty of neglect of duty, submitting inaccurate reports, and submitting false reports and being sanctioned with suspension and demotion. Petitioner's argument that he was entitled to the benefits was rejected by the Board of Trustees of the State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland (the Board). After that administrative decision was affirmed upon judicial review by the circuit court and court of special appeals, petitioner filed a petition for writ of certiorari. The Court of Appeals concluded that because petitioner's incapacity arose out of his "willful negligence," he was not entitled to special disability benefits provided by Md. Code Ann., State Pers. & Pens. 29-111(b)(1). Affirmed.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
Thomas v. State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland,
No. 51, September Term, 2009
ELIGIBILITY FOR STATE “SPECIAL DISABILITY” RETIREMENT
BENEFITS; DEFINITION OF “WILLFUL NEGLIGENCE” IN SPP § 29111(b)(1): An employee’s disability arises out of his or her “willful negligence” if the
disability has resulted from the employee’s deliberate failure to perform his or her duties.
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS
September Term, 2009
JAMES H. THOMAS
STATE RETIREMENT AND
PENSION SYSTEM OF MARYLAND
Opinion by Murphy, J.
Filed: June 17, 2011
In the case at bar, James H. Thomas (the Petitioner), a retired Maryland State
Police (MSP) officer, argues that he is entitled to receive “special disability benefits.”
This argument was rejected by the Board of Trustees of the State Retirement and Pension
System of Maryland (the Board), Respondent. After that administrative decision was
affirmed upon judicial review by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, and by the Court of
Special Appeals in Thomas v. State Ret. & Pension Sys. Of Md., 184 Md. App. 240, 964
A. 2d 733 (2009), the Petitioner filed a petition for writ of certiorari in which he
presented us with the following question:
Should this Court clarify whether a police department can
deny an employee a special disability retirement when the
employee’s disability did not arise from the employee’s
misconduct, but rather the actions taken by the department
following the misconduct?
We granted the petition. 409 Md. 44, 972 A.2d 859 (2009). For the reasons that
follow, we conclude that because his incapacity arises out of his “willful negligence,” the
Petitioner is not entitled to special disability benefits provided by Md. Code Ann., State
Pers. & Pens. (“SPP”), § 29-111(b)(1) (2004). We shall therefore affirm the judgment of
the Court of Special Appeals.
The Court of Special Appeals opinion includes the following factual summary:
Thomas began working as a State trooper for the
Maryland State Police in 1971. After he suffered a series of
panic attacks while on the road from 1978 to 1980, he was
transferred to the MSP's Automotive Safety Enforcement
Division ("ASED"), after which the panic attacks ceased.
Within the ASED, Thomas's job was to audit Maryland's
authorized vehicle inspection stations.
In January 2000, the MSP issued Special Order
23-001, which established new, uniform ASED procedures
for the auditing of vehicle inspection stations. It is undisputed
that Thomas was aware of the new procedures and failed to
comply with them. After his superiors discovered that Thomas
was not conducting thorough audits and that he was
submitting false reports regarding his audits, the MSP
initiated disciplinary proceedings against him by serving
Thomas with an official Notification of Complaint on March
The receipt of the Notification caused Thomas to
experience feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, and
agitation, interfering with his job performance. Accordingly,
the MSP referred Thomas to Caren DeBernardo, Psy.D.,
H.S.P.P., a licensed psychologist, for treatment. Thomas had
his first therapy visit with Dr. DeBernardo on September 6,
2001. Dr. DeBernardo later testified that, at this first meeting,
Thomas was "feeling depressed. He was upset about the
situation at work and that he had been reprimanded and was
feeling anxious and agitated at the time." Dr. DeBernardo
noted that Thomas "basically was productive and working
well up until" the time he came in for treatment.
In October 2001, Thomas and his counsel purportedly
negotiated a settlement agreement with the MSP, according to
which Thomas would receive a thirty-day suspension without
pay but remain in ASED. The parties dispute how firmly MSP
committed to this settlement agreement. But the MSP
informed Thomas in November 2001 that there would be no
settlement, and that the charges against him would be
adjudicated. Thomas contends that when the MSP reneged on
the settlement agreement, that traumatic incident exacerbated
his pre-existing depression, insomnia, anger, and obsession
over the disciplinary proceedings against him. As a result of
Thomas's condition progressing to a more serious depressive
disorder, Thomas stopped working and went on sick leave at
the end of November 2001, and he never returned to active
duty. In January 2002, Bruce Leopold, M.D., a psychiatrist,
diagnosed Thomas with a Major Depressive Illness.
On March 1, 2002, the MSP Administrative Hearing
Board found Thomas guilty of neglect of duty, submitting
inaccurate reports, and submitting false reports. The Hearing
Board recommended a combined sanction of sixty days of
suspension without pay, a one-year demotion from Trooper
First Class to Trooper, and transfer out of ASED. Following
the adjudication, Thomas's condition further deteriorated, and,
in October 2002, Daniel C. Gutkir, Ph.D., diagnosed Thomas
with Major Depressive Disorder.
The Superintendent of the MSP adopted the Hearing
Board's findings and sanctions. Thomas petitioned for judicial
review in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. In
January 2003, the circuit court remanded the case for
additional fact-finding in relation to the sanctions. Pursuant to
additional findings by the Board, the MSP again imposed the
On April 15, 2003, Thomas applied to the SRPS for
special disability retirement benefits, as opposed to the less
generous ordinary disability retirement benefits. In order for a
retired member of the SRPS to be eligible for ordinary
disability benefits, the Medical Board must certify that he "is
mentally or physically incapacitated for the further
performance of the normal duties of the member's position."
SPP § 29-105(a)(2)(i). To qualify for special disability
benefits, an MSP retiree must be "totally and permanently
incapacitated for duty arising out of or in the course of the
actual performance of duty without willful negligence by the
member." SPP § 29-111(b)(1).
On June 26, 2003, the SRPS Medical Board
recommended approving ordinary disability benefits but
denying special disability benefits, on the ground that
Thomas's disability did not arise out of or in the course of the
actual performance of duty. In response to Thomas's request
for reconsideration, the Medical Board affirmed its previous
recommendation, which the SRPS accepted on July 22, 2003.
On August 4, 2003, Thomas again requested reconsideration.
Sometime in 2003, Dr. DeBernardo's diagnosis
changed to Major Depressive Disorder, due to Thomas's
worsening symptoms. In a letter dated October 23, 2003, to
Thomas's attorney, Dr. DeBernardo summarized the
progression of Thomas's symptoms, and stated: "[Thomas]
reported that these symptoms began immediately following
charges brought against him by his employer -- the Maryland
State Police." Dr. DeBernardo's letter of October 23, 2003,
Mr. Thomas was initially diagnosed with
Adjustment Disorder with Depressed and
Anxious Mood. (309.28). However, since
symptoms worsened over time and continued
for over two years, his diagnosis was changed to
Major Depressive Disorder (296.23).
* * *
Prior to the allegations of misconduct,
there was no reason to believe that Mr. Thomas
would not continue to be an effective employee.
In addition, his depression began immediately
following the allegations and worsened with the
increased stress associated with the disciplinary
actions, hearing, appeal, and pending
Thomas retired on November 1, 2003. The next year,
on August 5, 2004, the Medical Board reaffirmed its
recommendation that Thomas receive ordinary disability
benefits, which recommendation the SRPS adopted on August
On September 8, 2004, Thomas appealed to the Office
of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"). Both Thomas and the
SRPS filed motions for summary judgment. On November 2,
2005, the presiding Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Gus
Avery, issued a proposed decision, ruling that Thomas's
medical condition did arise out of the performance of duty -namely, participation in the disciplinary procedure against
him -- but that it resulted from his willful negligence in failing
to comply with the new ASED procedures. Accordingly, ALJ
Avery recommended that the SRPS deny Thomas's claim for
special disability benefits under SPP § 29-111(b)(1). Thomas
noted exceptions to the proposed decision.
Thomas, 184 Md. App. at 242-245, 964 A.2d at 733-736.
The Petitioner exercised his right to file exceptions to the ALJ’s proposed
decision,1 and on February 21, 2006, the Board held an exceptions hearing. On March 21,
2006, the Board remanded the case to the Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”) for
an ALJ to conduct “a full evidentiary hearing.” The order for remand directed that the
ALJ answer the following question:
Did the Claimant’s depression disorder with anxiety for which
he has been determined to be totally and permanently
incapacitated for duty, arise out of or in the course of the actual
performance of duty without willful negligence by the claimant?
ALJ Stephen Nichols conducted the remand hearing. On October 5, 2006 ALJ
Nichols issued his proposed decision, which included the following factual findings:
7. On October 1, 1980, Thomas was transferred, at his
request, from road patrol to the Automotive Safety
Enforcement Division (“ASED”) of the MSP. After his
transfer into the ASED, the Claimant’s panic attacks gradually
Section 10-216 of the State Government Article and COMAR 22.06.06.02 provide the
applicant for a disability retirement allowance with the right to file exceptions to the
proposed decision, and the right to present argument to the Board.
8. In the ASED, Thomas conducted inspections of Maryland’s
authorized vehicle inspection stations. When the Claimant
began working in the ASED the procedures for conducting
inspections of authorized vehicle inspection stations were not
uniform throughout the State.
9. In January 2000, MSP Special Order 23-0001, entitled,
“Monthly Inspection Station Checks,” was issued that
established new, uniform ASED procedures for the inspection
of authorized vehicle inspection stations and for the
documentation of those inspections.
10. On February 8, 2000, Thomas signed a MSP Form 42
acknowledging receipt of Special Order 23-0001.
11. Thomas was present at meetings held his supervisors to
review and provide information on the new procedures.
12. On or about February 6, 2001 Thomas’ immediate
supervisor inspected some of the authorized vehicles
inspection stations assigned to the Thomas and found that he
was not following and/or documenting the new procedures in
13. On February 8, 2001, a meeting took place at the MSP
Annapolis Barracks between Thomas and his supervisors. At
that meeting, his supervisors discussed with the Thomas the
discrepancies noted with his inspection and told him what he
was expected to check and how to document his inspections.
14. After that meeting, Thomas’s supervisors began
investigating allegations that the Thomas was not conducting
thorough inspections of his assigned stations and was
submitting false reports. During re-inspections of the assigned
stations, Thomas’s supervisors noted deficiencies that had not
been reported by him.
While agreeing with ALJ Avery’s recommendation to deny the Petitioner’s
application for special disability benefits, ALJ Nichols stated:
The phrase “without willful negligence” was intended by the
Legislature to prevent an award that arises from an intentional
disregard by a State Trooper to the requirements of his/her
The Petitioner again exercised his right to file exceptions to the proposed decision,
and on April 17, 2007 the Board held another exceptions hearing. Later that day, the
Board issued its final decision, in which it adopted ALJ Nichols’ findings of fact and
conclusion that the Petitioner’s willful negligence disqualified him from receiving special
disability benefits. As noted above, the Petitioner sought judicial review of the Board’s
decision, which was affirmed by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and by the Court of
The State of Maryland provides “ordinary disability” benefits to retired employees
who satisfy the requirements set forth in SPP §29-105.2 The State of Maryland also
provides “special disability” benefits to retired members of the Maryland State Police
SPP § 29-105 provides:
The Board of Trustees shall grant an ordinary disability retirement
allowance to a member if:
the member has at least 5 years of eligibility service; and
the medical board certifies that :
i. the member is mentally or physically incapacitated for the
further performance of the normal duties of the member’s
ii. the incapacity is likely to be permanent; and
iii. the member should be retired.
Retirement System who satisfy the requirements of SPP §29-111(b) which, in pertinent
(b) Eligibility.- The Board of Trustees shall grant a special
disability retirement allowance to a member if:
1) the member is totally and permanently
incapacitated for duty arising out or in the
course of the actual performance of duty
without willful negligence by the member; and
2) The medical board certifies that:
i. the member is totally incapacitated, either mentally
or physically, for the further performance of duty;
ii. the incapacity is likely to be permanent; and
iii the member should be retired.
The Petitioner argues that there are two reasons why he is entitled to disability
benefits. In the words of his brief:
THE DEFINITIONS OF WILLFUL MISCONDUCT,
WHICH OTHERWISE BARS A LINE-OF-DUTY
DISABILITY DUE TO STRESS, REQUIRES SOME
ACT OTHER THAN THE UNDERLYING ALLEGED
MISCONDUCT WHICH RESULTED IN A POLICE
DEPARTMENT’S INTERNAL INVESTIGATION.
THE TERM “WILLFUL NEGLIGENCE” IS
INHERENTLY CONTRADICTORY AND SHOULD
THEREFORE BE DEFINED AS AN ACT THAT
PURPOSEFULLY INTENDS A PARTICULAR
As the above quoted portion of ALJ Nichols’ findings of fact make clear, there is
no merit in the argument that the Board’s decision to deny the Petitioner’s claim for
special disability benefits is not - - as a matter of fact - - supported by substantial
evidence.3 Substantial evidence existed in the record to support the conclusion that the
Petitioner willfully neglected his duties by submitting inaccurate and false reports
concerning his audit of Maryland’s authorized vehicle inspection stations. According to
the Petitioner, however, he is entitled to special disability benefits as a matter of law. In
the words of his brief:
Willful negligence in this context is more akin to performing
an act or acts that purposely bring about a disability . . An
action cannot be willful unless it is intentional or purposeful
and since [the Petitioner] did not act with the purpose or
intention to cause his disability his actions do not statutorily
bar him from recovering special disability benefits.
When the issue is whether an administrative agency has made an erroneous
conclusion of law, the “agency’s interpretation and application of the statute which the
agency administers should ordinarily be given considerable weight by reviewing courts,”
Marzullo v. Kahl, 366 Md. 158, 172, 783 A.2d 169, 177 (2001). As this Court stated in
Grasslands Plantation, Inc. v. Frizz-King Enterprises, LLC., 410 Md. 191, 978 A.2d 622
Our obligation is “to ‘review the agency's decision in the light
most favorable to the agency,’ since their decisions are prima
facie correct and carry with them the presumption of validity.”
Catonsville Nursing Home, Inc. v. Loveman, 349 Md. 560, 569,
Neither the Board nor the ALJs were erroneous in finding that the Petitioner’s disability
results from (in the words of ALJ Avery) “his willful negligence in failing to comply with
the new ASED procedures,” rather than from MSP’s decision to renege on the supposed
settlement agreement and instead adjudicate the disciplinary proceedings.
709 A.2d 749, 753 (1998) (citation omitted).
“Even with regard to some legal issues, a degree of
deference should often be accorded the position of the
administrative agency. Thus, an administrative agency’s
interpretation and application of the statute which the agency
administers should ordinarily be given considerable weight by
reviewing courts.” Bd. of Physician Quality Assurance v. Banks,
354 Md. 59, 69, 729 A.2d 376, 381 (1999). We are under no
constraint, however, “to affirm an agency decision premised
solely upon an erroneous conclusion of law.” Ins. Comm'r v.
Engelman, 345 Md. 402, 411, 692 A.2d 474, 479 (1997).
Id. at 204, 978 A.2d at 629.
There is no merit in the argument that the term “willful negligence” is “inherently
contradictory.” In Foster v. Hyman, 148 S.E. 36 (N.C. 1929), the North Carolina
Supreme Court stated:
The true conception of wilful negligence involves a deliberate
purpose not to discharge some duty necessary to the safety of
the person or property of another, which duty the person owing
it has assumed by contract, or which is imposed on the person
by operation of law.' Thompson on Negligence (2 ed.), sec. 20,
quoted in Bailey v. R. R., 149 N.C. 169 [62 S.E. 912].
"An act is wanton when it is done of wicked purpose, or when
done needlessly, manifesting a reckless indifference to the
rights of others. Everett v. Receivers, 121 N.C. 519, [27 S.E.
991]; Bailey v. R. R., supra. A breach of duty may be wanton
and wilful while the act is yet negligent; the idea of negligence
is eliminated only when the injury or damage is intentional.
Ballew v. R. R., 186 N.C. 704, 706 [120 S.E. 334, 335]."
Id. at 37-38.
We agree with and adopt the above quoted definition of willful negligence, which
is consistent with New Jersey’s statutory definition of that term. Like Maryland, New
Jersey’s police officers and firefighters are eligible to receive “accidental disability
retirement” benefits only if their disabilities were not the result of their willful
negligence. 4 The New Jersey Administrative Code defines willful negligence as:
1. [A] deliberate act or deliberate failure to act;
2. Such conduct as evidences reckless
indifference to safety; or
3. Intoxication, operating as the proximate cause
New Jersey Administrative Code, “TREASURY –GENERAL CHAPTER 4.
POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM SUBCHAPTER 6.
RETIREMENT ” §17:4-6.5 (2011).
Title 43 of the New Jersey State Code, entitled, PENSIONS AND RETIREMENT
AND UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION... PENSION FUND FOR POLICEMEN
AND FIREMEN; TRAFFIC OFFICERS ON COUNTRY ROADS CHAPTER 16A.
POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM (N.J. Stat. § 43:16A-7), in
pertinent part, provides:
Retirement for accidental disability; allowance; death benefits
(1) Upon the written application by a member in service, by
one acting in his behalf or by his employer any member may
be retired on an accidental disability retirement allowance;
provided, that the medical board, after a medical examination
of such member, shall certify that the member is permanently
and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event
occurring during and as a result of the performance of his
regular or assigned duties and that such disability was not the
result of the member's willful negligence.
We agree with ALJ Nichols that “[t]he phrase ‘without willful negligence’ was
intended by the Legislature to prevent an award that arises from an intentional disregard
by a State Trooper of the requirements of his/her duties,” and with the Court of Special
Appeals that, “by focusing on the emotional impact of the disciplinary proceedings while
ignoring what led to them, would lead to an absurd result: [the Petitioner] would end up
benefitting from his own willful negligence in the performance of his duty.” 184 Md.
App. at 251, 964 A.3d at 739. The Petitioner’s claim for special disability benefits was
properly denied by the Board, and the Board’s decision was correctly affirmed upon
JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF SPECIAL
APPEALS AFFIRMED; COSTS TO BE PAID
BY THE PETITIONER.