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Oral Argument Before the Hawaii Supreme Court–No. SCWC-16-0000355

No. SCWC-16-0000355, Thursday, November 29, 2018, 10 a.m.

DEBBIE S. QUEL, Petitioner/Petitioner-Appellant-Appellant, vs. BOARD OF TRUSTEES, EMPLOYEES’ RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF HAWAII, Respondent/Respondent-Appellee-Appellee.

The above-captioned case has been set for argument on the merits at:

Supreme Court Courtroom
Aliiolani Hale, 2nd Floor
417 South King Street
Honolulu, HI 96813

Attorney for Petitioner:

Dan S. Ikehara

Attorneys for Respondent:

Patricia Ohara, Brian P. Aburano, Elmira K.L. Tsang, and Jodi L.K. Yi, Deputy Attorneys General

NOTE: Order accepting Application for Writ of Certiorari, filed 08/27/18.

COURT: MER, C.J., PAN, SSM, RWP, and MDW, JJ.

[  Listen to the entire audio recording in mp3 format  ]

Brief Description:

Debbie S. Quel (Quel) worked for eighteen years as a school cafeteria helper. During this time, her duties included lifting heavy trap doors, putting things in an oven (sometimes into an oven taller than her), scooping rice for about 250 trays, pinching dough, peeling potatoes, cutting vegetables, opening cans with an “old-fashioned” can opener, serving meals to students, cleaning up, buffing the floors, and shampooing the carpet. In November 2010, Quel filed an application for service-connected disability retirement with the Employee’s Retirement System (ERS) and claimed that she experienced pain and swelling in her shoulders, arms, and hands. Quel asserted that her disability resulted from her duties as a cafeteria worker.

Although the ERS Board found that Quel’s physical injuries resulted from repetitive motions during her years of employment as a cafeteria helper, the ERS Board denied Quel’s application because the repetitive use of hands and arms was common to employment in general. The ERS Board stated that occupational hazards do not arise from acts that are incident to employment in general, but rather arise from acts that pose a hazard different in character than “the general run of occupations.” In addition, the ERS Board determined that Quel failed to sustain her burden of proof.

Quel appealed the ERS Board’s Final Decision to the Circuit Court of the First Circuit (circuit court). The circuit court affirmed the Final Decision of the ERS Board, finding that Quel “did not carry her burden of proving that her repetitive use of hands, arms, and shoulders was different in character from those found in the general run of occupations.”

On appeal before the ICA, Quel argued that the regulation defining “occupational hazard” was too narrowly defined under Hawai i Administrative Rules (HAR) § 6-22-2. Instead of applying HAR § 6-22-2, Quel argued that the Hawai i Supreme Court’s decision in Ralph Y. Komatsu v. Board of Trustees, Employees’ Retirement System, 67 Haw. 485, 693 P.2d 405 (1984) provided the relevant test for determining whether a claimant is entitled to service-connected disability retirement benefits. Quel asserted that Komatsu did not require proof that the work environment or work activities constituted an “occupational hazard.” Instead, Quel contended, Komatsu simply required a causal nexus between the injury suffered and the work environment.

The ICA affirmed the circuit court’s decision on the basis that the ERS Board properly applied the definition of “occupational hazard” codified in HAR § 6-22-2. The ICA held that Komatsu’s definition of “occupational hazard” was “not substantially different” than the definition under HAR § 6-22-2 and therefore the same result should occur.

On Certiorari, the critical issue is whether or not cumulative trauma is an “occupational hazard” entitling Quel to service-connected disability retirement benefits with the ERS. Accordingly, Quel contends that: (1) the ERS Board promulgated a definition of “occupational hazard” that is too narrow and (2) Komatsu requires that she receive service-connected disability retirement benefits.