may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Minneapolis Teachers' Retirement
Filed January 7, 1997
Minneapolis Teachers' Retirement Fund Association
Robert D. Butterbrodt, 155 South Wabasha Street, Suite 103, St. Paul, MN 55107 (for Respondent)
Considered and decided by Norton, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Randall, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
A former teacher appeals the decision of the Minneapolis Teachers' Retirement Fund Association board of trustees denying her application for disability benefits. We conclude that eligibility for disability benefits under the applicable provisions is determined by a showing of general disability, and because substantial evidence supports the board's decision to deny the application, we affirm.
On October 28, 1995, Hefte applied to the MTRFA for disability annuities. Her disability claim was based on (1) psychological disorders, including frequent panic attacks and severe depression, and (2) moderate to severe hearing loss. Hefte's depression was first diagnosed in 1991 and has improved in response to anti-depressant medications. Her anxiety appears to be in part prompted by thoughts of returning to the classroom. Her hearing loss, also first diagnosed in 1991, has progressively worsened. She wears a hearing aid in one ear and reports difficulty hearing students in a noisy classroom.
In response to Hefte's application for disability benefits, the MTRFA requested a physician to review the medical information Hefte had submitted with her application. Based solely on her review of the medical records, the physician found that Hefte did not meet the applicable definition of disabled. The board then voted to have Hefte examined by the physician before making a final decision on Hefte's eligibility for disability benefits. On April 9, 1996, Hefte was examined by the physician, who concluded that "[n]either the hearing loss nor the anxiety depression disorders are of a completely incapacitating nature" and that Hefte did not qualify as disabled.
The MTRFA board denied Hefte's application based on the physician's conclusions, and Hefte now appeals the board's decision by writ of certiorari.
A public retirement fund is analogous to an administrative agency. Axelson v. Minneapolis Teachers' Retirement Fund Ass'n, 544 N.W.2d 297, 299 (Minn. 1996). Decisions by the fund's board will be reversed if they are "'fraudulent, arbitrary, unreasonable, unsupported by substantial evidence, not within its jurisdiction, or based on an error of law.'" Id. (quoting Dokmo v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 11, 459 N.W.2d 671, 675 (Minn. 1990)); see also Dietz v. Dodge County, 487 N.W.2d 237, 239 (Minn. 1992) ("[T]he court 'is necessarily confined to questions affecting the jurisdiction of the board, the regularity of its proceedings, and, as to merits of the controversy, whether the order or determination in a particular case was arbitrary, oppressive, unreasonable, fraudulent, under an erroneous theory of law, or without any evidence to support it.'") (citation omitted).
"Disability," "permanent disability," or "total disability" means the inability of a member to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to be of long, continued and indefinite duration which shall in no event be less than one year.
Id., art. V, § 5.11.
At issue in this appeal is whether "any substantial gainful activity" refers to work within the teaching profession or to any kind of work activity at all. The supreme court has characterized these different types of disability as "occupational" and "general." "When used in the occupational sense, [total disability] means the inability to perform the substantial and material parts of one's occupation in the customary and usual manner and with substantial continuity. When used in the general sense, it means the inability to perform the substantial and material parts of any gainful occupation with reasonable continuity." Laidlaw v. Commercial Ins. Co., 255 N.W.2d 807, 812 (Minn. 1977) (citations omitted).
We believe the definition is unambiguous and clearly descriptive of disability in the general sense: "'Disability' * * * means the inability * * * to engage in any substantial gainful activity." (Emphasis supplied.) "When the words of a law in their application to an existing situation are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit." Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (1994); see also Homart Dev. Co. v. County of Hennepin, 538 N.W.2d 907, 911-12 (Minn. 1995); Anker v. Little, 541 N.W.2d 333, 336 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. Feb. 9, 1996). This interpretation is also supported by the absence in this definition of any specific reference to teaching. A different interpretation begs the question: Why did the drafters not include a specific reference to teaching if their intent were to describe occupational disability? Compare MTRFA Articles of Incorporation, art. V, § 5.17 (defining "retirement" as "the time after the date of cessation of active teaching service") (emphasis added).
1. Such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;
2. More than a scintilla of evidence;
3. More than some evidence;
4. More than any evidence; and
5. Evidence considered in its entirety.
Cable Communications Bd. v. Nor-West Cable Communications Partnership, 356 N.W.2d 658, 668 (Minn. 1984) (citations omitted). We conclude that substantial evidence supports the MTRFA board's decision to deny Hefte's application for disability benefits.
The MTRFA board based its decision on the recommendations of a qualified physician who reviewed Hefte's record, gave her a physical examination, and determined that she was not totally disabled. The board is required to "appoint one or more qualified physicians to examine the applicant and to report to the [board] after which the [board] shall make its determination as to the existence of * * * total disability." MTRFA Articles of Incorporation, art. XXI, § 21.3. This the board did.
The board-appointed physician reviewed the records in Hefte's application as well as more current medical records from Hefte's psychiatrist and primary care physician. In addition, she conducted a physical examination of Hefte. The physician concluded that Hefte's anxiety disorder and depression were appropriately treated by her current medications and that her hearing loss, while permanent and disabling, did not constitute a total disability. Hefte was able to communicate adequately throughout the examination, despite the noise of a fan in the examining room. Based on her review, the physician wrote, "I do not feel that Ms. Hefte qualifies at this time for total permanent disability. Neither the hearing loss nor the anxiety depression disorders are of a completely incapacitating nature." Hefte does not need to show that she is "completely incapacitated" to be eligible for disability benefits. See Laidlaw, 255 N.W.2d at 812 ("Total disability does not mean a state of absolute helplessness or inability to perform any task relating to one's employment."). But despite the physician's phraseology, the records she reviewed as well as her own discussion of Hefte's illnesses provide "more than a scintilla of evidence" on which the MTRFA board could have based its decision that Hefte is not totally disabled and therefore ineligible for disability benefits. For the same reasons, the decision is not arbitrary and capricious.
[ ]1Hefte argues that all of her other physicians have concluded that she is disabled. But the medical records on which Hefte relies--an evaluation by an ears, nose and throat (ENT) physician and an evaluation by a licensed psychologist--were from 1994, a full year prior to her application for benefits. Further, while both records indicate some amount of disability, they are each focused on Hefte's ability to perform classroom teaching. The psychologist notes: "I am not optimistic that her psychological functioning will improve enough for her to be able to resume teaching duties by this fall." (Emphasis supplied.) The ENT physician states: "It will be very difficult for her to be an effective classroom teacher or small group tutor even if adaptations to the listening environment are attempted." (Emphasis supplied.) Neither medical record contains any indication that Hefte is "generally" disabled, i.e., unable "to perform the substantial and material parts of any gainful occupation with reasonable continuity." Laidlaw, 255 N.W.2d at 812.