In this matter, the employee’s dependent surviving spouse appeals the compensation judge’s decision that she is not qualified to receive vocational rehabilitation services pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.102, subd. 1a. The employer and insurer cross-appeal the compensation judge’s award of reimbursement for a bench monument as a burial expense pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.111, subd. 18.
The surviving spouse of the employee obtained a bench-style monument and a Veteran’s Administration bronze plaque for her deceased husband’s grave. She opted for the bench-style monument instead of a headstone. The cost of the bench with tax and cemetery lot fee totaled $10,946.28. The surviving spouse sought reimbursement from the employer and insurer for such costs. The employer and insurer refused payment, asserting they already paid burial expenses.
The surviving spouse was unable to complete her master’s degree in special education due to financial constraints and emotional distress resulting from her husband’s death. She is 54 years old with limited work experience. The surviving spouse is currently working as a special education teacher limited by a three-year contract dependent upon her obtaining a special license to teach children with autism. If at any point another qualified teacher with the required license applies for the position, the surviving spouse will lose her job. The surviving spouse is requesting vocational rehabilitation assistance to received additional training.
On October 9, 2015 the compensation judge awarded reimbursement for the bench gravestone as a burial expense and denied the vocational rehabilitation request. The surviving spouse appealed the denial of vocational rehabilitation, while the employer and insurer cross-appealed the reimbursement award.
The WCCA notes that when a case involves a question of law, such as the application of a statute to undisputed facts, the decision may be considered de novo on appeal. The WCCA reversed the compensation judge’s denial of vocational rehabilitation. In its decision, the WCCA applied Minn. Stat. § 176.102, subd. 1a. The statute defines a “qualified surviving spouse” for rehabilitation purposes as one “who is in need of rehabilitation assistance to become self-supporting” and mandates such support. In Wirtjes v. Interstate Power Co. the Minnesota Supreme Court noted it is “the individual talents, skills, experience, earning capacity, and employability of the surviving spouse…that determine whether the surviving spouse is in need of rehabilitation assistances and, if so, the kind of rehabilitation services required.” The WCCA’s opinion states the surviving spouse demonstrated the need for rehabilitation assistance and emphasizes her age, limited work experience, and earning capacity.
The reimbursement for the bench gravestone was a case of first impression. The WCCA notes that if a statute is clear and unambiguous the court must apply its plain language. Minn. Stat. § 176.111, subd. 18. states that when an employee dies from a work related injury the “employer shall pay the expense of burial, not exceeding in amount $15,000.” The statute does not impose a reasonableness requirement. The WCCA also notes that by omitting a reasonableness requirement, it allows surviving family members of different cultures, faiths, and backgrounds to partake in unique customs and practices. Additionally, as “expense of burial” is not defined, the court looked to other statutes for guidance. Minn. Stat. § 149A.02, burial site goods and services are defined as those that are offered in connection with the final disposition of a human body. The compensation judge cited the dictionary definition of burial, “the act or process of burying a dead body.” The WCCA affirmed the compensation judge’s determination that a bench monument placed in the customary position of a headstone constitutes a burial expense.