Minnesota Supreme Court Affirms WCCA’s Strict Reading of the Statutory Provisions Concerning Rehabilitation Plans and Job Offers

On May 3, 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals' (WCCA) decision reversing a discontinuance of TTD based on a refusal to accept a job offer from the date-of-injury employer.  The court held that under Minnesota § 176.101, subd. 1 (i) (2016), an offer to return to work with the same employer is not “consistent with” a plan of rehabilitation which states the employee's vocational goal is to return to work with a different employer in the same industry. Gilbertson v. Williams Dingmann.

Shannon Gilbertson worked as a funeral director for Williams Dingmann, LLC (Dingmann).  Gilbertson generally worked normal business hours, Monday through Friday, but also worked on-call outside of this schedule when needed.  When Gilbertson's on-call schedule conflicted with her family obligations, and her employer could not accommodate her request to modify her schedule, she submitted a letter of resignation.

On October 13, 2011, approximately two weeks after sending her letter of resignation, Gilbertson suffered a low back injury while working for Dingmann.  The employer accepted responsibility for the injury and paid the employee temporary total disability benefits.

The employee worked with a qualified rehabilitation consultant (QRC), who completed an R-2 rehabilitation plan which checked the option for “[return to work] different employer” as the vocational goal.  The workers' compensation insurer, the QRC and the employee each signed the Plan.

Dingmann later offered her a position within her restrictions at the same compensation and work schedule as her prior position there.  Gilbertson declined this job offer for the same personal reasons cited in her letter of resignation before her injury.  Dingmann's insurer filed a Notice of Intention to Discontinue Gilbertson's temporary total disability (TTD) benefits based on her refusal to accept a suitable job offer and Gilbertson contested the NOID.  Compensation judges presiding over the administrative conference and hearing upheld the discontinuance. The compensation judge in the hearing allowed the discontinuance because, although the employee's rehabilitation plan specified a return to work with a different employer in the same industry, that goal was based on the employee's personal interest.  The employee appealed this decision.

The WCCA reversed, concluding Dingmann could not discontinue TTD benefits because its job offer was not “consistent with Gilbertson's plan of rehabilitation” to return to work with another employer.  Dingmann appealed the WCCA's decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing that consistency with the rehabilitation plan requires consideration of the totality of the circumstances not just the box checked on the R-2 Rehabilitation Plan form.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the WCCA. Justice Hudson, writing for the court, stated that the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1 (i), which provides TTD shall cease if the employee refuses “an offer of work that is consistent with a plan of rehabilitation”, was clear and unambiguous. The Court reasoned that nothing in the rehabilitation plan to which all parties agreed required the employee to accept a job offer from the date-of-injury employer.  The court stated it could not conclude the WCCA erred in holding the employer's job offer contradicted the employee's rehabilitation plan. Dingmann argued for a broad interpretation of the rehabilitation statute to require the employee to accept the job they offered. The court, rejecting the broad interpretation, also cautioned that its analysis of the rehabilitation provisions of the workers' compensation statute should not “suggest that an employee's personal obligations necessarily be accommodated in the vocational goals listed” on the R-2.

What should we take away from this case?  R-2 Rehabilitation Plans must be read carefully to protect employer and insurer's future interests.  The court emphasized that in reaching its decision, it was simply enforcing the terms to which the parties agreed.  Here, the parties agreed that the employee would return to a job with a different employer, not the date-of-injury employer by simply checking a box on the basic R-2 form.  The employer, the court reasoned, had an opportunity to object to the terms of the rehabilitation plan, but it did not and is therefore bound by the terms of the agreement.

Please contact O’Meara Leer Wagner & Kohl’s Workers Compensation team for more information or legal representation.