This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A05-1821

 

In the Matter of the Application for PERA Local Government Correctional Service Plan Line of Duty Disability Benefits of Paul Martinez

 

Filed July 18, 2006

Reversed

Minge, Judge

 

Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota

File No. 594684

 

 

William B. Butler (of counsel), Biersdorf & Associates, P.A., 4100 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for relator Paul Martinez)

 

Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Rory H. Foley, Assistant Attorney General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2134 (for respondent PERA)

 

            Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Minge, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N

 

MINGE, Judge

 

            Relator Paul Martinez appeals denial by the board of the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) of his claim for duty-related disability benefits arguing that PERA misinterpreted Minn. Stat. § 353E.06 (2004) and unreasonably denied him such benefits.  We agree with relator and reverse.

FACTS

            Relator Paul Martinez worked for the Ramsey County Corrections Department (County) for 31 years and most recently worked as a shift lieutenant in charge of the Ramsey County Correctional Facility (Workhouse).  Relator supervised approximately 12 other correctional officers assigned to the shift.

            On September 9, 2003, around 2 a.m., relator was in the basement boiler area of the Workhouse completing an inspection when he heard what he thought was a radio transmission.  Because this was in a “dead spot” for radio transmissions, relator quickly climbed a stairwell to respond.  As relator climbed the stairs, he began experiencing pain and soreness in his left knee.  The pain became sharp and relator began limping.  Later that day, relator filed a First Report of Injury with the County and an Employee Injury Report.

            Relator iced his knee, but sought treatment from his primary care physician, Dr. Wineman, when the pain persisted.  Wineman referred relator to Dr. David Fey, an orthopedic surgeon.  Fey ordered physical therapy but the knee did not improve.  At the County’s request, relator also saw Dr. Schneider, another orthopedic surgeon.

            Relator returned to work, but was placed on sick leave when the pain in his knee worsened.  Relator saw Dr. Paul Wicklund, a third orthopedic surgeon, in the fall of 2003.  Wicklund ordered an MRI study of the knee, which revealed cartilage damage and a torn meniscus in the left knee.  Based on this diagnosis, Wicklund performed arthroscopic surgery to repair the condition and prescribed a brace.

            Relator requested to return to work, but the County refused unless Wicklund could give relator full medical clearance to perform all of his required job duties including “run[ning] to the scene of emergency situations, where he could be required to physically grapple with and subdue inmates who are involved in fights, assaults, etc. and/or are mentally or emotionally unstable” and the ability to “lift over 100 pounds in emergency situations.”  Wicklund never gave relator full medical clearance.

            Relator was placed on paid sick leave and then medical leave of absence.  Eventually he applied to respondent Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) for disability benefits.  He included the First Report of Injury and the Employee Incident Report with his application.  Dr. Wicklund sent PERA a Physician’s Report that diagnosed relator with “degenerative joint disease with tears of the meniscus and the anterior cruciate ligament” of relator’s left knee.  Wicklund opined that relator was disabled and physically unfit to perform the duties of a correctional officer.

            Fey submitted a second Physician’s Report, which diagnosed relator with degenerative joint disease of the left knee with a chronic tear of the anterior cruciate ligament.  Fey opined that relator was disabled and physically unfit to perform the duties of a correctional officer and that the disability was related to a previous work-related injury that occurred in 1976 when relator worked for the County.

            In early January 2005, PERA received a letter from Dr. Valentine O’Malley of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) responding to PERA’s request for a determination of whether relator was occupationally disabled.  O’Malley, the fifth doctor to evaluate relator’s condition, indicated that he believed that relator was occupationally disabled. 

            Proceeding cautiously, PERA requested an independent medical evaluation.  In response to this request, Dr. Stephen Barron, the sixth doctor, independently evaluated relator and found that he had a grade II anterior and anteromedial rotatory instability and a grade II Lachman’s test of the left knee, but that the knee was stable medially and laterally.  Barron concluded that relator was not occupationally disabled because he could work if he wore a knee brace.  But the County advised PERA that relator could not return to work with a brace because he would endanger his own safety and that of the facility.  PERA forwarded this information to the MDH for a determination of whether relator was occupationally disabled.

            On March 29, Dr. William Paule, a seventh doctor, who was affiliated with the MDH, advised PERA that in his opinion, relator was occupationally disabled.

            PERA approved relator for non-duty-related disability benefits.  Relator’s counsel requested a fact-finding conference on whether relator’s disability was duty-related.  An administrative law judge (ALJ) issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, which recommended to the PERA board that it grant relator’s application for non-duty-related benefits but deny relator’s application for duty-related disability benefits.

            The PERA board reviewed relator’s application, adopted the ALJ’s findings and conclusions entirely, and denied relator’s application for duty-related benefits because the injury did not result from a “hazardous act of duty.”  Relator appeals the board’s denial of duty-related disability benefits.

D E C I S I O N

 

            The issue we consider is whether relator is entitled to duty-related benefits.  The appellate court reviews the actions of a public retirement fund board under the same standard of review as the actions of an administrative agency.  Axelson v. Minneapolis Teachers’ Ret. Fund Ass’n, 544 N.W.2d 297, 299 (Minn. 1996); In re Application of Hildebrandt for Duty-Related Corr. Plan Disability Benefits, 701 N.W.2d 293, 298 (Minn. App. 2005).  The quasi-judicial decision of such a body will not be reversed unless it is “fraudulent, arbitrary, unreasonable, unsupported by substantial evidence, not within its jurisdiction, or based on an error of law.”  Axelson, 544 N.W.2d at 299 (quotation omitted).  “In a challenge to the decision of an administrative agency requiring this court to construe the words of a statute, we review the statutory interpretation de novo and then consider whether the agency’s decision was reasonable in light of the proper meaning of the statute.”  Hildebrandt, 701 N.W.2d at 298.

A.  Did the board properly interpret Minn. Stat. § 353E.06?

 

            PERA administers the local government correctional service retirement plan (correctional plan) under chapter 353E.  Minn. Stat. § 353E.01, subd. 1(a) (2004).  The correctional plan provides for duty-related disability benefits in the event that an employee becomes disabled with a duty-related injury.  Minn. Stat. § 353E.06, subd. 1 (2004).  The statute provides that

[a] local government correctional employee who becomes disabled and physically or mentally unfit to perform the duties of the position as a direct result of an injury, sickness, or other disability that is medically determinable, that was incurred in or arose out of any act of duty, and that renders the employee physically or mentally unable to perform the employee’s duties, is entitled to a disability benefit.

 

Id. (emphasis added).  For non-duty-related injuries, the plan provides for a lower disability benefit.  See id. at subd. 2 (2004).

            Relator argues that PERA’s denial of his application for duty-related benefits was error.  Because relator was climbing stairs when the injury occurred and because the PERA board did not consider this as a hazardous activity, the board denied relator duty-related benefits.

            After PERA denied relator duty-related benefits, this court rejected the board’s interpretation of section 353E.06 that an injury must stem from a hazardous act of duty before it can grant duty-related benefits.  Hildebrandt, 701 N.W.2d at 299-300; see also In re Application for PERA Police and Fire Plan Line of Duty Disability Benefits of Brittain, 705 N.W.2d 576, 581 (Minn. App. 2005) (reversing PERA board’s denial of duty-related benefits because the board erred to interpret section 353E.06 to limit benefits to injuries incurred only during hazardous situations), review denied (Minn. Jan 17, 2006).  In Hildebrandt, the applicant worked as a jailor/dispatcher, and after a malfunction during a 911 call prevented her from aiding the caller, the applicant became “very nervous and upset.”  701 N.W.2d at 295.  Two days later, she was diagnosed with “depression/anxiety” and diagnosed as “physically or mentally unfit to perform the duties of a correctional officer [as] a direct result of an injury or illness which occurred during, or arose out of, an act of duty.”  Id.  Three other physicians confirmed that the applicant was occupationally disabled.  Id. at 296.  The ALJ agreed that the applicant was entitled to duty-related benefits, but PERA staff recommended to the board that it deny applicant duty-related benefits because the injury did not arise out of a hazardous act of duty.  Id. at 296-97.  The board denied the applicant duty-related benefits.  Id. at 298.  Because the statute provides that “any act of duty” is covered, this court rejected the board’s interpretation that injuries must stem from hazardous acts of duty and concluded that the board unreasonably denied the applicant benefits.  Id. at 299-300.

In the case before us, the ALJ noted that the record indicated that relator’s injury could be “degenerative” and that relator failed to show causation.  PERA argues that relator’s injury was degenerative, did not arise out of an “act of duty,” and could have manifested itself anywhere including his workplace.  However, the only evidence in the record regarding the activity that precipitated a degenerative injury is the report of Dr. Fey.  Fey indicated that relator’s initial injury was related to relator’s work with the “same employer” in 1976. 

Because the record only supports the conclusion that relator’s injury was related to his recent work with the county and possibly work with the county in 1976, and that the injury arose out of an act in the line of duty, we conclude that it was unreasonable for PERA to decide that relator’s injury did not arise out of an act of duty, and that it was error for PERA to deny relator duty-related disability benefits.

Reversed.