BRYON D. FRASER, Employee/Appellant, v. CITY OF ST. LOUIS PARK, SELF-INSURED/SEDGWICK CLAIMS MGMT. SERVS., Employer-Insurer.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
JANUARY 25, 2006
REHABILITATION - FEES & EXPENSES; REHABILITATION - RETRAINING. Supplies or equipment related to an approved retraining plan need not be indispensable to be compensable. Under the particular facts of this case, where the employee was working full time in a job closely related to his retraining plan and reasonably required reliable computer access both for that job and for his retraining classes, the compensation judge erred in concluding that a laptop computer was not a necessary rehabilitation expense.
Determined by Wilson, J., Stofferahn, J., and Pederson, J.
Compensation Judge: Danny P. Kelly
Attorneys: Gary L. Manka, Katz, Manka, Teplinsky, Due & Sobol, Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellant. Mark A. Kleinschmidt, Cousineau McGuire, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondents.
DEBRA A. WILSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge=s denial of expenses associated with the purchase of a laptop computer for use in the employee=s retraining program. We reverse.
On May 26, 2001, the employee sustained an admitted work-related injury to his right knee while employed as a police officer by the City of St. Louis Park [the employer], which was self-insured for workers= compensation purposes. The employer did not offer the employee work within his restrictions, and rehabilitation efforts eventually focused on retraining.
In the spring of 2003, the employee=s QRC, Debra Bourgeois, submitted a retraining plan calling for the employee to attend Bethel University to complete a Master of Education degree in special education, which would qualify him to teach students with learning disabilities. The employer apparently approved of the proposed degree program but wanted the employee to continue working full time at his then-current job, as a paraprofessional for St. Louis Park High School, while attending Bethel. The employee objected to the requirement for full-time employment, and the dispute over the terms of the plan continued for about a year. As a consequence, the employer did not sign the proposed retraining plan until June 11, 2004. A representative of the Department of Labor and Industry approved the retraining plan on July 6, 2004. The plan, as approved, does not require the employee to work full time while in school.
Once the retraining plan was approved, the employee contacted Bethel University about starting the master=s degree program as soon as possible. In connection with his enrollment, the employee signed a form, on July 10, 2004, entitled ADocumentation of Personal Internet Access,@ complying with a school requirement to certify that he had access to a computer, with e-mail and web access capabilities, for use throughout his degree program. At the time he signed the form, the employee had occasional access to his daughter=s laptop computer and also had a desktop computer in his home. However, his daughter was in college herself at the time and often took her laptop with her, and the employee=s desktop model, purchased in 1998, had become unreliable. Therefore, the employee shopped for and purchased a new laptop computer, with warranty, carrying case, mouse, and software, to use for his course work at Bethel.
The employee testified that he had previously researched laptop computers when shopping for his daughter=s and that the laptop he purchased for himself was in the middle range in terms of price. According to the receipt, the laptop itself was listed at $1,210.05; after rebate, the total cost of the computer and accessories, including AMicrosoft Office Student and Teacher@ software, was $1,840.69.
On July 20, 2004, QRC Bourgeois wrote to the employer, conveying a request by the employee for reimbursement of his expenses for the computer and related supplies. Shortly thereafter, in early August of 2004, the employee began school at Bethel. In December of 2004, an administrative conference was held regarding the employer=s liability for computer costs. The commissioner=s representative denied reimbursement for the laptop but ordered the employer to pay for the Microsoft Office software. The employee subsequently filed a request for formal hearing.
In January of 2005, the employee started working full time as a special education teacher for the Bloomington School District, having been granted a variance from the teacher=s licensing requirement. QRC records indicate that the employee=s continued employment in that job was contingent on completion of his master=s degree and then attainment of appropriate licensure. While working as a teacher, the employee continued his classes at Bethel. The record indicates that the employee attends one three-hour class per week, year-round. According to Dr. David W. Anderson, director of graduate programs and special education at Bethel, all of the classes in the employee=s degree program are held at night, and most students in the program work in a school setting while pursuing their degrees. Class assignments consist almost exclusively of weekly papers; there are no examinations for grading purposes. All communications from Bethel personnel to graduate students are sent by e-mail.
The employee uses his laptop computer to take notes in his classes at Bethel, to research and write required papers, and as a tool in the classes he teaches in the Bloomington schools. The employee has access to a desktop computer in his Bloomington classroom but does not use it for his degree work at Bethel, because anything on the classroom computer is subject to review by other school district employees. The employee also potentially has access to a computer lab at Bethel, but use of those computers is problematic, because of high demand and because the employee lives 26 miles away from the Bethel campus.
The dispute over the employer=s liability to pay for the employee=s computer and related supplies came on for hearing before a compensation judge on May 17, 2005. At the outset of the hearing, counsel for the employer indicated that the employer either had paid or would pay for the Microsoft software program awarded at the administrative conference level. With regard to evidentiary issues, the employer objected to the employee=s submission of a letter from Dr. Anderson concerning the employee=s need for a computer for his course work at Bethel. The judge sustained the objection on foundation grounds but allowed the employee to take Dr. Anderson=s deposition post-hearing. Other evidence submitted to the compensation judge included the testimony of the employee and employee=s QRC, rehabilitation records, and newspaper advertisements for computer sales at local electronics stores, which had been received by the employer=s counsel at his home in March of 2005. At hearing, the employer took the position that the employee had no need to own a computer at all, much less a laptop computer, to complete his master=s degree. In the alternative, the employer argued that the reasonable cost of a computer was $400.00.
In a decision issued on August 1, 2005, the compensation judge denied the claimed computer-related expenses. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
On appeal, the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether "the findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted." Minn. Stat. ' 176.421, subd. 1 (2004). Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, "they are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984). Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed. Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240. Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, "unless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.@ Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
An employer is liable for the cost of all rehabilitation services and supplies necessary for implementation of an approved retraining plan, as well as the reasonable cost of tuition, books, travel, and custodial daycare. See Minn. Stat. ' 176.102, subd. 9(1) and 9(2). In the present case, the compensation judge concluded that the employee=s laptop computer Agreatly assists the employee in pursuit of his retraining goals.@ However, also concluding that the retraining plan could be successfully completed without a laptop, the judge denied the employee=s claim for reimbursement. We reverse.
At hearing, the employer essentially conceded that the employee needs to use a computer in order to complete his Bethel course work. They argued, however, that nothing in the Bethel program requires the employee to own a computer. This argument ignores the reality of the employee=s circumstances. It is true that Bethel does not require its graduate students to purchase either a laptop or a desktop computer. However, the employee is required to write and submit a research paper virtually every week, and these papers form the entire basis for the employee=s grade. Because the employee is employed full time while in school and lives 26 miles from the Bethel campus, it is simply not reasonable to expect him to travel to Bethel in an attempt to do his weekly papers at the Bethel computer lab, especially given evidence indicating that graduate students cannot count on access to those computers. In addition, Bethel requires its graduate students to have computer access outside of the Bethel computer lab.
The employer also suggested that the employee could use the desktop computer in his Bloomington classroom. However, this suggestion is similarly unreasonable. As the employee noted, nothing on that computer is private. More importantly, nothing in the record establishes that the employee has access to that computer during evenings and weekends, when he has time to do most of his homework, or that the Bloomington school district is agreeable to having a classroom computer tied up extensively for personal use. Also, the employee did not even begin the Bloomington teaching job until January of 2005, five months after he first required reliable computer access for his classes at Bethel. As for the employer=s argument that the employee could have used his old home desktop computer, the employee testified that that computer both needed repair and could not in any event accommodate the Microsoft Office software that he needs for his Bethel class work. The compensation judge expressly accepted the employee=s testimony as credible, in its entirety, and the employer did not appeal from the judge=s decision. As such, the only reasonable conclusion is that the employee=s 1998 home desktop computer was not adequate for the employee=s retraining needs.
The record as a whole clearly compels the conclusion that it was reasonable for the employee to purchase a computer for use in his retraining program. The more difficult question is whether it was reasonable for the employee to purchase a laptop, in that laptops are generally more expensive than desktop models. However, after close review of the record as a whole, we are persuaded that the laptop computer and related items are reasonable and necessary components of the employee=s retraining plan.
The employee uses his laptop computer to take notes in his classes at Bethel and to make Powerpoint presentations in his job as a special education teacher for the Bloomington schools - - a job closely related to his retraining and a job that helps ensure his employability following completion of his master=s degree. While not required by the plan to do so, the employee is working on a full-time basis while also attending what Dr. Anderson described as Aaccelerated@ classes towards his degree. The portability of a laptop allows the employee to work on both his Bethel assignments and his related Bloomington teaching duties whenever he has a few extra minutes at work. Given the time constraints imposed by his full-time employment, it is evident that having a laptop, as opposed to a desktop, is invaluable to the employee.
The compensation judge apparently denied the employee=s claim for the laptop based on the conclusion that the employee could successfully complete his master=s degree without one. However, when the issue is whether retraining, in general, is Anecessary,@ the question is not whether retraining is Aindispensable@ but whether it will materially assist the employee in restoring his impaired earning capacity. Norby v. Arctic Enter., Inc., 305 Minn. 519, 232 N.W.2d 773, 28 W.C.D. 48 (1975). Similarly, we are of the opinion that a requested rehabilitation expense may be reasonable and therefore compensable even if it is not essential to successful completion of an approved retraining plan. Certainly cost is a factor to be considered in analyzing retraining expense requests. See, e.g., Varda v. Northwest Airlines Corp., 692 N.W.2d 440, 65 W.C.D. 92 (Minn. 2005). However, in this case, there is no credible evidence establishing that the employee could have procured a laptop computer, sufficient for his retraining needs, at a substantially lower price. In any event, we find no requirement in the law that limits an employee to the very least expensive version of otherwise necessary supplies. The question is always what is reasonable under the circumstances.
In summary, the record establishes that the employee needed a new computer for use in his retraining program, and, as the compensation judge himself found, the laptop purchased by the employee Agreatly assists@ him in his pursuit of his retraining goals. Under the specific facts of this case, we conclude that the employer is liable for payment for the claimed computer and related costs, and the judge=s decision to the contrary is reversed.
 In the interim, the employer attempted to discontinue wage loss benefits on grounds that the employee=s work injury was only temporary. Litigation on this issue was resolved in the employee=s favor.
 However, contrary to the assertion in the employer=s brief, there is no evidence in the record that laptops were available for check-out from the Bethel library.
 Dr. Anderson testified that, during the normal academic year, undergraduates use the computer lab Aquite extensively, which makes it hard for [graduate students] to get in.@
 The employer=s exhibit of newspaper advertisements from March of 2005 does little to establish prices in August of 2004, when the employee first needed the computer, and there is no evidence whatsoever establishing which of the advertised computers would have met the employee=s needs.