Markham v. Minn. Dep’t of Resources

Markham v. Minn. Dep’t of Resources, WC18-6130 (W.C.C.A June 22, 2018).

Employer and insurer appeal the compensation judge’s award approving a retraining plan when the decision was, in part, based off the employee’s potential for future earnings.

The employee was in her final years of study towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Aquatic Biology when she took an internship through the employer.  As an intern, the employee worked full-time at $12.00 per hour. Shortly thereafter, she sustained an admitted work injury to her right ankle.  The employee eventually underwent surgery, when she developed an allergic reaction to the hardware, resulting in the hardware being removed.  She was subsequently diagnosed with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome.

Having attained two associate’s degrees in nature resources and geographic information systems, and completing a Bachelors of Science in aquatic biology shortly after the injury, the employee planned to work as a fisheries specialist with the DNR. This paid between $19.29 and $27.98 per hour. Due to the work injury, the employee no longer met the physical requirements to work as a fisheries specialist.

After completing an extensive job search, where the employee provided over 300 job logs, the employee found two jobs, last of which was working part-time as a front desk attendant at a hotel. This position paid $10.50 per hour. The QRC then proposed a retaining plan in the field of medical administration.  This plan included four semesters at the Hennepin Technical College, with an expected median salary in this field of $18.00.  The employer and insurer then obtained an independent vocational expert, who, basing the average weekly wage off the internship earnings, opined the retraining was not reasonable or necessary; and that the employee could achieve her preinjury wage through full-time work as a hotel clerk. The matter went to hearing, where the judge found the employee was entitled to the proposed retraining plan.

On appeal, the employer and insurer argued that the compensation judge erred by providing the employee with a speculative earning capacity on what the employee might be able to earn in the field for which the employee studies, but has never worked. The WCCA rejected this argument citing to Stiltman v. Partridge River, Inc.  In Stiltman, the Supreme Court held that retraining may be necessary if it “will be likely to restore impaired capacity to earn a livelihood; and earning capacity may be impaired if the employee’s injury prevents him or her from returning to the former employment or from securing advancement in that employment.”  The court further citied to Minn. Stat. § 176.102, which provides that rehabilitation “to a job with a higher economic status than would have occurred without disability is permitted if it can be demonstrated that this rehabilitation is necessary to increase the likelihood of employment.” Using this reasoning, the WCCA found that considering the employee’s potential wage as a fisheries specialist when assessing whether the employee had an impaired earning capacity was appropriate.

The WCCA also addressed the employer and insurer’s argument that the judge did not fully consider the Poole factors.  In determining the eligibility for retraining, the court has traditionally looked to the Poole factors, which include: (1) the reasonableness of the retraining compared to returning the employee to work with the employer or through job placement; (2) likelihood of employee succeeding in a formal course of study; (3) likelihood that retraining would result in attainable employment; and (4) likelihood retraining would produce an economic status as close as possible to that which would have been achieved without disability.

The WCCA held that, although the compensation judge did not specifically outline each Poole factor in the award, these factors were thoroughly addressed through vocational testimony, rehabilitation reports, and medical records included in the hearing record.  The WCCA affirmed.