Gilbertson v. Williams Dingmann, LLC Supreme Court Case No. A16-0895 (May 3, 2017).
The employee worked at a funeral home, Williams Dingmann, when she suffered a work related low back injury on October 13, 2011. Just a few weeks before that injury occurred, the employee had submitted a letter of resignation on September 26, 2011 indicating her resignation would be effective December 21, 2011 citing personal, family-related reasons. The work injury was accepted and the employee began working with a QRC who submitted an R-2 Rehabilitation Plan. On that Rehabilitation Plan, the employee’s “vocational goal” was listed as “[return to work] different employer” and the QRC further indicated that the employee was interested in returning to work in the same industry but with a different employer.
That Rehabilitation Plan was signed by all parties – the employee, her QRC, and the insurer’s representative. Then, the employer made a job offer to the employee for essentially the same job that she held before her date of injury and indicated they would accommodate the employee’s restrictions until they were removed. The employee rejected that job offer, and the employer and insurer filed a Notice of Intention to Discontinue (NOID) benefits to cut off temporary total disability benefits based on the rejection of their job offer that would have returned the employee to full time, full wage work within her restrictions.
The employer and insurer prevailed at the NOID conference where the compensation judge granted the discontinuance of temporary total disability benefits. The employee then filed an Objection to Discontinuance and at hearing, the compensation judge agreed that the discontinuance was reasonable because the employee had refused a job offer of “gainful employment” and because her desire to return to work with a different employer was based on her personal interest in not having “on call” responsibilities like she had with Dingmann.
The employee appealed the compensation judge’s decision, and the WCCA reversed finding that benefits were not properly discontinued because the job offer was inconsistent with the rehabilitation plan. The employer appealed the WCCA decision to the Supreme Court, who in turn affirmed the WCCA.
The Supreme Court first looked at the plain language of the statutory requirements for rehabilitation plans. Specifically, the Court focused on Minnesota Statute §176.101 Subdivision 1(i) Which indicates that temporary total disability benefits can be discontinued if the employee refuses a job offer that is inconsistent with a rehab plan that has been filed with the commissioner or, if no rehab plan has been filed, if the employee refuses an offer of gainful employment that is within his/her physical capabilities. The Court determined that the statute is clear on its face and the rehab plan in this case clearly stated return to work “with a different employer” as the employee’s goal and thus an offer to return to work with the same employer cannot be considered “consistent” with the rehab plan.
The employer and insurer argued that the Court needs to look at the legislative intent of the rehabilitation plan in totality. The Court did acknowledge that the goal of rehabilitation is to “restore the injured employee so the employee may return to a job related to the employee’s former employment or to a job in another work area which produces an economic status as close as possible” to pre-injury status. Minn. Stat. §176.102, Subdivision 1(b) (2016). The employer and insurer thus argued that their return to work offer fulfilled the legislative objective of rehabilitation and the fact that she wanted to work for a different employer for wholly personal reasons shouldn’t prevent a discontinuance of benefits if she rejects a suitable job offer.
The Court however, disagreed and noted that there is nothing in the statute that would allow the Court to read in such a provision – an offer to return to work with the same employer is inconsistent with the stated goal in a signed rehab plan of return to work with a different employer, and that’s the end of the story as far as the Supreme Court was concerned. Thus, the WCCA was affirmed.
It is worth noting that Justice Anderson issued a concurring opinion that acknowledged that this opinion in essence prevents an employer from being able to limit its ongoing liability by offering a job to an injured employee if that employee has already filed a rehab plan that states only a goal of returning to work with a different employer. The concurrence states that even if the date of injury employer had custom-designed a position to meet every possible demand of the employee, the rehabilitation statute still would have allowed her to continue drawing temporary total disability benefits while searching for a new job with a different employer. Justice Anderson acknowledged that there are likely complications to arise from this decision such as employers being hesitant to rely on recommendations of QRCs and seeking opinions from legal counsel for rehabilitation forms that were previously considered “routine.”