This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
David Bergstrom, et al.,
Minnesota State Retirement System
Evelyn Burgess, 757 33rd Street South, Apartment 21, St. Cloud, MN 56301 (pro se appellant)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Jon K. Murphy, Assistant Attorney General, 900 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Chief Judge Toussaint, Presiding Judge; Minge, Judge; and Wright, Judge.
Appellant Evelyn Burgess worked as a corrections officer for twelve years. During that time, she participated in the Correctional Employees Retirement Plan of the Minnesota State Retirement System (MSRS). Due to the effects of high blood pressure, she was placed on a medical leave of absence in February 2001. Burgess underwent a fitness-for-duty evaluation and was found unfit to return to work.
Burgess applied for disability benefits on January 15, 2002, claiming that she suffered from “extremely high blood pressure due to work-related pressures of discrimination and racial harassment.” An MSRS medical advisor recommended denial of her application because, in the evaluation report, Burgess’s treating physician, Dr. Beth Donnelly, answered “no” in response to the question, “Is this employee disabled?” Burgess submitted a second evaluation report from Dr. Donnelly, dated October 10, 2002. This time Dr. Donnelly answered “yes” to the question asking whether Burgess was disabled, but she did not state whether the injury was work-related. After reviewing this report, a second MSRS medical advisor determined that Burgess was occupationally disabled, citing her diagnosis of depression and longstanding hypertension. On November 15, 2002, MSRS informed Burgess that she had been approved for “non work-related” disability benefits, which granted Burgess a lower level of benefits than she would have received for duty-related benefits.
On November 26, 2002, Burgess appealed the decision to the MSRS Board, claiming that she suffered from a duty-related disability. Burgess submitted additional copies of Dr. Donnelly’s October medical report; a letter from Dr. Donnelly dated March 13, 2001; a report from Fran Bieganek, her treating therapist; and the report of Dr. Charlene Hanisch, a psychologist. Burgess claimed that these reports all linked the disability to her working conditions. Burgess supplemented her appeal with a second copy of Dr. Donnelly’s October report, which had been “updated” by Dr. Donnelly’s associate, Dr. Erickson. Erickson answered “yes” in response to a question asking whether the illness or injury resulted from employment. Burgess also faxed a copy of a letter from Dr. Erickson, which stated that he changed the form after consulting with Dr. Donnelly over the phone.
The MSRS Board heard Burgess’s appeal on January 16, 2003. Burgess testified that she believed her anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure were caused by long-term racial harassment by her supervisors and co-workers. After hearing the testimony and reviewing the medical reports, the MSRS Board denied Burgess duty-related disability benefits “due to the lack of documentation showing that the disability was job-related.” This appeal followed.
We review the MSRS Board’s disability-benefits decision to determine whether the board drew the correct conclusions from the facts in the record and whether there was a reasonable basis for the decision. Axelson v. Minneapolis Teachers’ Ret. Fund Ass’n, 544 N.W.2d 297, 299 (Minn. 1996). The Minnesota Supreme Court has analogized a public retirement fund board to an administrative agency. Id. As such, the MSRS Board’s decision will be reversed only if it is “fraudulent, arbitrary, unreasonable, unsupported by substantial evidence, not within its jurisdiction or based on an error of law.” Id. (quoting Dokmo v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 11, 459 N.W.2d 671, 675 (Minn. 1990)). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence, considered in its entirety, as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Reserve Mining Co. v. Herbst, 256 N.W.2d 808, 825 (Minn. 1977). The appellant must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the MSRS Board’s findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record or are arbitrary or capricious. In re Application of Allers, 533 N.W.2d 646, 652 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. Aug. 30, 1995).
A correctional employee is entitled to duty-related disability benefits if he or she “becomes disabled and physically unfit to perform the duties of the position as a direct result of an injury, sickness, or other disability incurred in or arising out of any act of duty that makes the employee physically or mentally unable to perform the duties.” Minn. Stat. § 352.95, subd. 1 (2002). The employee bears the burden of providing evidence to support the application for duty-related disability benefits. Minn. Stat. § 325.95, subd. 4(a) (2002). Burgess submitted evidence that she is disabled, which was not disputed by the MSRS Board. Rather, the MSRS Board denied Burgess’s application for duty-related disability benefits because of “the lack of documentation showing that the disability was job-related.” Burgess argues that she provided sufficient evidence that her disability resulted from pervasive co-worker harassment. But a careful review of the record demonstrates that Burgess failed to establish that such harassment occurred and that it caused her disability. The record provides insufficient documentation correlating Burgess’s disability with her employment. Burgess testified that she had filed several complaints. But her allegations of racial harassment lacked detail and corroboration; and her workplace grievances were determined to be unsubstantiated. The medical reports that Burgess relies on do not opine that her disability arose out of an “act of duty” connected to her employment; rather, these reports recite what Burgess told her physicians. Moreover, Dr. Donnelly’s supplemented report, which states that Burgess’s disability is job-related, lacks any description of what job-related conditions Dr. Donnelly believed caused the disability.
We in no way condone racial discrimination and harassment in employment. But, based on the record before us, we conclude that Burgess failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the MSRS Board’s decision is arbitrary, capricious, or unsupported by the record. Because the MSRS Board’s decision is reasonable and supported by the record, we conclude that denial of duty-related disability benefits was appropriate.
In light of our determination that the record supports the MSRS Board’s decision, we decline to address whether pervasive co-worker harassment can cause a “duty-related” disability as contemplated by the statute.