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Colby v. Board of Trustees for the Maine Public Employees Retirement System

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

August 31, 2018

CYNTHIA COLBY Petitioner
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES FOR THE MAINE PUBLIC EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Respondent

          ORDER ON PETITION FOR REVIEW OF AGENCY ACTION

          M. Michaela Murphy, Justice.

         Before the court is Cynthia Colby's Rule 8OC Petition for review of the October 13, 2017 decision of the Board of Trustees for the Maine Public Employees Retirement System (the "Board") denying her claim for disability retirement benefits.

         Background

         Cynthia Colby is a former employee of the Department of Health and Human Services. (R. 4.455.) Colby began her employment at DHHS in January of 1990. (R. 4.455.) Colby's last date of service at the department was September 2, 2014. (R. 4.455.)

         On September 11, 2011, while employed at DHHS, Colby filed her first application for disability benefits with Maine PERS. (R. 4.172.) Colby's application claimed a disability based on medical problems relating to scoliosis, upper and lower back pain, numbness in left leg, and a "crack in lower spine, causing lower back pain." (R. 4.172.) The Executive Director denied the application and Colby appealed the denial to the Board of Trustees. On May 1, 2013, the Hearing Officer recommended denial of the appeal. (R. 4.402.)

         On September 4, 2014, Colby filed her second application for disability benefits. (R. 4.444-4.447.) Similar to the first application, Colby's second application claimed a disability related to scoliosis, back pain due to scoliosis, and headaches. (R. 4.445.) On October 23, 2014, the Executive Director denied Colby's second application. (R. 4.448.) Colby did not pursue an appeal of the denial with the Board of Trustees.

         On May 25, 2016, Colby filed her third application for disability benefits. (R. 4.7.) The third application claimed a disability relating to severe scoliosis, back/neck pain, depression/anxiety, headaches, and GERD.[1] As of her third application, Colby's last date of service remained September 2, 2014. (R. 11.2.) Because Colby had not had a new period of membership with a Maine PERS covered employer since the denial of her second application for disability benefits, the Executive Director only considered Colby's claim for a disability based upon GERD, depression and anxiety. (R. 4.491-4.493.) On August 9, 2016, the Executive Director denied Colby's third application on the basis that the medical evidence "[did] not support the existence of functional limitations resulting from [GERD or depression/anxiety] as of September 2, 2014 (last date in service)." (R. 4.492.)

         On September 6, 2016, Colby appealed the Executive Director's Decision to the Board of Trustees. (R. 2.1.) On September 20, 2016, the Board Hearing Officer remanded the matter to the Executive Director for the purpose of ruling on Colby's claim for benefits due to conditions of severe scoliosis, back and neck pain, and headaches. (R.7.l.) On October 11, 2016, the Executive Director issued a decision following remand from the Board. (R. 8.1.) This decision made clear that the conditions of severe scoliosis, back and neck pain, and headaches could not be considered when determining Colby's eligibility for disability benefits because: (1) Colby did not return to work for a MainePERS covered employer following the October 23, 2014 denial of her second application for disability benefits, and therefore did not have a new period of eligibility; and (2) the conditions of severe scoliosis, back and neck pain, and headaches were the same conditions that formed the bases of her second application. (R. 8.1-8.2.)

         Following multiple evidentiary hearings, the Board Hearing Officer remanded the matter to the Executive Director a second time on April 11, 2017. (R. 33.1.) On May 11, 2017 the Executive Director issued a decision affirming its earlier decisions denying Colby's application. (R. 35.1.) On September 21, 2017, the Board Hearing Officer issued a decision recommending that the Board affirm the Executive Director's Decision denying Colby's application for disability benefits. (R. 43.3-43.11.) On October 12, 2017, the Board issued its decision adopting the Hearing Officer's recommendation. (R. 44.2.)

         On November 15, 2017, Colby timely filed a petition for review of the Board's October 12, 2017 decision affirming the denial of her claim for disability benefits.

         Standard of Review

         The Court reviews the Board's Decision for an abuse of discretion, error of law, or findings not supported by the evidence. Uliano v. Bd. of Envtl. Prot., 2009 ME 89, ¶ 12, 977 A.2d 400 (citation omitted). The court may not weigh the merits of the evidence presented to the administrative body but instead must determine whether there is competent evidence in the record which supports the administrative findings. Concerned Citizens to Save Roxbury v. Bd. of Envtl. Prot., 2011 ME 39, ¶ 24, 15 A.3d 1263. "An administrative decision will be sustained if, on the basis of the entire record before it, the agency could have fairly and reasonably found the facts as it did." Id. (quoting CWCO, Inc. v. Superintendent of Ins., 1997 ME 226, ¶ 6, 703 A.2d 1258).The party seeking to vacate an agency decision bears the burden of persuasion. Kelley v. Me. Pub. Emps. Ret. Sys., 2009 ME 27, ¶ 16, 967 A.2d 676. "When an agency concludes that the party with the burden of proof failed to meet that burden, [the court] will reverse that determination only if the record compels a contrary conclusion to the exclusion of any other inference." Id. (quoting Hale-Rice v. Me. State Ret. Sys., 1997 ME 64, ¶ 17, 691 A.2d 1232).

         Discussion

         Colby's primary argument is that the Board erred when it concluded that Colby could only pursue an application for disability benefits based upon GERD, depression, and anxiety and not conditions related to scoliosis. Specifically, Colby argues that the October 2014 denial of her second application for disability benefits does not have any res judicata effect which precludes her from bringing a claim based on conditions related to scoliosis. Colby also argues that the Board improperly failed to consider the mental impacts caused by the side effects of medication taken to alleviate her scoliosis symptoms. Finally, Colby argues ...


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