Court rules Home Depot can stop paying workers’ comp for missing Bethel woman

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PORTLAND — When Fay Johnson went missing in 2012, she was 62 years old and receiving workers’ compensation payments for injuries she suffered while working at Home Depot.

Johnson is still missing, but since her disappearance from a home in Bethel, the company and an attorney representing Johnson have fought over whether the missing woman’s daughter should continue to receive those payments on her mother’s behalf.

In what the Maine Supreme Judicial Court called an “unusual case,” the justices on Tuesday upheld the decision of a workers’ compensation hearing officer to suspend those payments until Johnson’s whereabouts can be confirmed.

The decision was appealed and upheld by the Workers’ Compensation Board before the appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court.

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Johnson went missing on March 6, 2012, and missed a March 15 hearing regarding her workers’ compensation benefits. The company had agreed to pay partial benefits after Johnson’s injury in 2009 and voluntarily began paying full benefits after a surgery in 2011.

In July 2012, three months after Johnson’s disappearance, the company under state law reduced its payments to the partial amount it agreed to pay before Johnson’s surgery. In October 2012, a workers’ compensation hearing officer allowed the company to stop sending payments to Johnson’s attorney and instead put them in a separate account for Johnson, should she return.

The hearing officer later allowed the company to stop payments altogether, stipulating that the company would have to pay them retroactively should Johnson request the money.

Douglas Kaplan, the attorney for Johnson and her daughter, argued during the case that the law does not allow Home Depot to curtail and suspend payments to Johnson or her daughter, Joleen Mitchell, both because the company could not properly serve the missing woman with notice of the change and because state law prevents an employer from deciding to suspend payments when an employee’s whereabouts are unknown.

The court ruled that Kaplan and Mitchell were, in fact, able to receive notice on Johnson’s behalf and upheld the suspension of benefits because it was the hearing officer’s decision, not the company’s.

The court stated hearing officers and the workers’ compensation board have “broad decision-making authority” to interpret the Workers’ Compensation Act in such cases.

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