Fisher v. Jim Lupient Auto Mall

Fisher v. Jim Lupient Auto Mall, WCCA No. WC16-5976 (March 1, 2017)

The Employee, Paul Fisher, sustained an admitted injury to his low back, working as an automobile repair technician, earning an average weekly wage of $1,387.90.  He then underwent extensive back surgery.  A functional capacities evaluation determined that he could not meet the physical demands of his service technician position and the Employer did not have any light duty work for him.

The Employee received job placement services and secured full-time employment, making $8.50 an hour at a new job. He continued his job search but his QRC recommended retraining.  The Employee was promoted to manager, making $35,000 a year.  A labor market survey was performed that showed employers desiring specialized experience in a specific management field, either with work experience or a specialized formal education.  A Retraining Plan was completed with the Employee’s goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Operations Management at St. Thomas University for an estimated cost of $194,381 to $207,246.  Employee applied and was accepted into the program.

Employee met with QRC Berdahl, a rehabilitation consultant at the request of the Employer.  A vocational evaluation was performed and he concluded Employee did not conduct a serious job search, the retraining plan was inappropriate, there were less costly alternatives, among other reasons. The Compensation Judge agreed with the opinions of QRC Berdahl.  The Employee appealed.

  1. Continued Job Placement Activities

Even though QRC Berdahl argued that the QRC firm had little involvement in finding employment for Employee, the evidence submitted showed that over the 29 month period, the QRC firm made 1,464 cold calls, submitted 63 resumes and cover letters for Employee, and provided 328 job leads.  The Employee made 115 phone contacts, submitted 459 applications, made 13 in-person contacts, and had 17 interviews.  A vast majority of these job leads and employer contacts were in the automotive field. The Court concluded these documented efforts were proof of Employee’s diligent job search.

  1. Reasonableness of Retraining

Nine out of the ten employers contacted in the survey required or strongly preferred a bachelor’s degree.  St. Thomas was selected because it offers a curriculum and degree specific to operations management.  The Employer did not submit any information regarding the cost, curricula, or graduation job placement information for alternative two-year programs.  For alternative, less costly, four-year programs, the Employer showed a full-time job placement rate of 35% with no earnings estimate.  St. Thomas showed a 96% post-graduate employment rate.  The Employer failed to show that the alternatives were equally viable and effective in restoring the Employee to suitable, gainful employment.

  1. Reasonably Attainable Employment

Although the Employee will have to withdraw from the labor market during his schooling, his age, experience, and degree once it is obtained will be seen as positive attributes by many employers.

  1. Economic Status as Close as Possible to Pre-Injury Status

Economic status is to be measured not only by opportunity for immediate income but also by opportunity for future income. The labor market surveys show a starting salary range for operations managers between $32,000 to $48,000.  With two to five years of experience, the salaries range from $50,000 to $55,000 one year after graduation.  The industry is growing at an 8% rate.

The Compensation Judge’s denial of the proposed three-year retraining plan was reversed.