SARA TIMMONS, Employee/Appellant, v. NORTHWEST AIRLINES CORP. and LIBERTY MUT. INS. CO., Employer-Insurer.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
APRIL 16, 2008
SETTLEMENTS - INTERPRETATION. The compensation judge correctly construed the terms of the parties= settlement agreement to provide for retraining and payment of temporary total disability benefits through the employee=s completion of the program specified in the attached retraining plan.
REHABILITATION - RETRAINING; TEMPORARY TOTAL DISABILITY; STATUTES CONSTRUED - MINN. STAT. §§ 176.102, SUBD. 11, AND 176.101, SUBD. 1(k). Pursuant to Minn. Stat. ' 176.102, subd. 11 and Minn. Stat. ' 176.101, subd. 1(k), an employee who is not employed is entitled to temporary total disability benefits, not Aretraining benefits,@ during participation in an approved retraining plan, and an employee who completes retraining is not eligible for additional temporary total disability benefits for up to 90 days after the end of the retraining if that employee has already received the statutory maximum of 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits prior to commencement of retraining.
Determined by: Wilson, J., Pederson, J., and Rykken, J.
Compensation Judge: Gary Hall
Attorneys: DeAnna M. McCashin, Schoep & McCashin, Alexandria, MN, for the Appellant. Kathy A. Endres, Aafedt, Forde, Gray, Monson & Hager, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondents.
DEBRA A. WILSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge=s decision allowing discontinuance of wage loss benefits effective May 22, 2007, arguing that the judge erred in interpreting the parties= stipulation for settlement and the applicable law. We affirm.
In the late 1990s, the employee sustained three work-related injuries to her left knee while employed by Northwest Airlines Corporation [the employer]. After the last injury, the employee was unable to return to her pre-injury job, and, in 2002, she obtained part-time work with another employer.
In early 2005, the employee=s rehabilitation plan was amended to provide for exploration of retraining. Several months later, in April of 2005, the employee and the employee=s QRC, Ione Tollefson, signed a retraining plan calling for the employee to attend Dakota County Technical College in order to obtain a two-year degree qualifying her to work as a medical administrative assistant. According to the plan, the program was to begin on June 7, 2005, and be completed by May 12, 2007. The employer and its insurer objected, but, at an administrative conference, the parties reached agreement regarding the proposed retraining. The employee had, in the meantime, begun classes in the program on August 22, 2005, while continuing to work at her part-time job.
The terms of the parties= settlement agreement are contained in a stipulation executed in January of 2006. Pursuant to that agreement, the employer and insurer approved the previously drafted retraining plan, with certain stipulations, and agreed to pay the employee temporary partial disability benefits through December 24, 2005, and then Atemporary total disability benefits as part of the retraining plan.@ In exchange, the employee gave up all claims for temporary partial disability benefits after December 24, 2005. The retraining plan at issue, calling for the employee to obtain an AAAS Med Admin Asst@ degree from Dakota County Technical College, was attached to the settlement agreement and incorporated by reference. An award on stipulation was issued on January 26, 2006. By the time of the settlement, the employer and insurer had already paid the employee at least 104 weeks in temporary total disability benefits.
In the fall of 2006, a rehabilitation plan amendment was filed, indicating that the employee would be taking courses in medical coding, offered through Anoka County Technical College but held on the Dakota County Technical College campus. The amendment and the employee=s rehabilitation records indicate that the employee was still expected to graduate in May of 2007. The insurer=s claims representative did not sign the rehabilitation plan amendment, but the insurer nevertheless paid the tuition and costs associated with the medical coding classes.
The employee completed her medical administrative assistant program and received her degree on May 11, 2007. On May 22, 2007, she completed her course work in medical coding, but she had yet to participate in an internship that would allow her to take the examination for certification in medical coding. She expected to complete that required internship the following fall, on Saturdays from September 8, 2007, through October 20, 2007.
The employer and insurer sought to discontinue temporary total disability benefits based on the employee=s completion of retraining, and the matter came on for hearing before a compensation judge on September 6, 2007. At hearing, the employee contended that her retraining program would not be completed until the end of her medical coding internship on October 20, 2007, and she asserted that she was entitled to temporary total disability benefits for 90 days thereafter unless some cessation event, as contemplated by Minn. Stat. ' 176.101, subd. 1, occurred prior to the end of the 90-day post-retraining period. The employer and insurer argued that wage loss benefits were payable only through May 22, 2007, which they apparently considered the end date of the employee=s retraining program, and that such benefits were under any circumstances payable only through August 22, 2007, pursuant to a 104-week limit contained in the 2006 stipulation for settlement.
In a decision issued on October 12, 2007, the compensation judge concluded that the employer and insurer were entitled to discontinue temporary total disability benefits effective May 22, 2007. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A[A] decision which rests upon the application of a statute or rule to essentially undisputed facts generally involves a question of law which [the Workers= Compensation Court of Appeals] may consider de novo.@ Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607, 608 (W.C.C.A. 1993).
Resolution of the dispute in this matter hinges in part on the parties= 2006 stipulation for settlement. The relevant provisions in that agreement read as follows:
A. That the employer and insurer shall approve the Retraining Plan which is attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit A with the following stipulations:
1. That the employee actually began her retraining program in August of 2005 and the retraining program shall run 104 weeks from the first day she attended classes at the Dakota County Technical College.
2. That the employer and insurer shall pay the employee temporary partial disability benefits through December 24, 2005 and from and after that date shall pay the employee temporary total disability benefits as part of the retraining program. . . .
3. That the employer and insurer shall pay and the employee shall accept payment of her mileage for attending the retraining program at .40 cents per mile.
B. That in exchange for the employer and insurer=s agreement to approve the retraining program, the employee agrees to a full, final and complete settlement of temporary partial disability benefits claims she has or may have from and after December 24, 2005. That the employee agrees and understands that she is closing out the temporary partial disability benefits as they relate to any and all injuries she has or may have had to her left knee while in the course and scope of her employment at Northwest Airlines.
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E. That by and through this Stipulation for Settlement the employee agrees that she is closing out all claims for temporary partial disability benefits from and after December 24, 2005 as those claims relate to any and all injuries she has sustained to her left knee while in the course of her employment with Northwest Airlines. That in exchange for the closeout of the temporary partial disability benefits, the employer and insurer agree to approve the retraining program submitted for the two-year program at the Dakota County Technical College which is attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit A with certain stipulations set forth above.
Attached as Exhibit A was the retraining plan, executed by the employee and the QRC in April of 2005, for the AAAS Med Admin Asst@ program running from A06/07/2005" to A05/12/2007" at the Dakota County Technical College.
In his decision, the compensation judge determined that the employee had completed the retraining plan contemplated by the stipulation effective May 11, 2007, and he also determined that the employer and insurer=s voluntary payment for expenses related to medical coding, and their payment of temporary total disability benefits through May 22, 2007, did not constitute an amendment to the settlement agreement or otherwise Aexpand the employee=s entitlement to temporary total disability benefits under that agreement.@ In his memorandum, the judge noted that the stipulation for settlement Aprovided for a two-year retraining program with a cap of 104 weeks of benefits,@ explaining that, @although the language in the stipulation does not specifically say >up to 104 weeks= that meaning is a reasonable interpretation in light of the proposed plan.@
On appeal, the employee argues in part that the compensation judge erred in his interpretation of the settlement agreement because, after subtracting her time off for holiday and other school breaks, the employee had actually attended classes for only 77.6 weeks by the date of the hearing. In fact, as she calculates it, the employee will have actually attended classes for a total of only 83.6 weeks by the time her medical coding internship was to end in October of 2007, and, under her theory, Anothing in the terms of the stipulation allow the discontinuance of the retraining benefits before the end of 104 weeks of retraining.@ The employee further asserts that the stipulation is not ambiguous and that judge had no basis to conclude that the agreement provided for payment of benefits for Aup to@ 104 weeks when that language was not part of the stipulation. These arguments have no merit.
We note initially that we find no support in the law or the stipulation itself to support the employee=s theory that only some weeks count toward the agreed-upon limit on retraining. Furthermore, while the agreement could perhaps have been more artfully drafted, there can be no doubt that the stipulation was intended to allow the employee two years, from the date she began classes, to complete the medical administrative assistant program at Dakota County Technical College. The retraining plan, which was part of the parties= contract, dealt only with that program, and the employee completed that program in May of 2007. Nothing in the stipulation suggests any contemplation by the parties that the employer and insurer would pay for any other retraining.
As for the issue of temporary total disability benefits, the employer and insurer agreed, in the stipulation, to Apay the employee temporary total disability benefits as part of the retraining program,@ that is, during the medical administrative assistant program offered at Dakota County Technical College, described in the attached retraining plan. Because, again, the employee completed the specified program in May of 2007, the employer and insurer=s obligation to pay temporary total disability benefits under the terms of the stipulation ended at that time. And, we agree with the compensation judge=s conclusion that the insurer=s voluntary payment for the medical coding class tuition and expenses did not alter the terms of the stipulation with regard to liability for wage loss benefits. To hold otherwise would discourage voluntary payment. Cf. Enger v. General Sec. Servs., slip op. (W.C.C.A. July 28, 1998).
The compensation judge also denied the employee=s claim for temporary total disability benefits for 90 days after the end of her retraining program, rejecting the employee=s attempt to distinguish between what both parties refer to as Aretraining benefits,@ that is, wage loss benefits payable during retraining, and the temporary total disability benefits supposedly otherwise payable during breaks from school and following completion of a retraining plan. We concur with the compensation judge=s analysis on this issue.
Under the law in effect on the date of the employee=s injuries, an employee who is unemployed is entitled to temporary total disability benefits while participating in an approved retraining program, pursuant to Minn Stat. ' 176.102, subd. 11. That temporary total disability compensation is payable for up to 90 days after the end of the retraining plan, Aexcept that, payment during the 90-day period is subject to cessation in accordance with section 176.101.@ Id., subd. 11(b). Pursuant to Minn. Stat. ' 176.101, subd. 1(k),
Temporary total disability compensation shall cease entirely when 104 weeks of temporary total disability compensation have been paid, except as provided in section 176.102, subdivision 11, paragraph (b). Notwithstanding anything in this section to the contrary, initial and recommenced temporary total disability compensation combined shall not be paid for more than 104 weeks, regardless of the number of weeks that have elapsed since the injury, except that if the employee is in a retraining plan approved under section 176.102, subdivision 11, the 104 week limitation shall not apply during the retraining, but is subject to the limitation before the plan begins and after the plan ends.
(Emphasis added). Thus, pursuant to statute, an employee who has received the otherwise applicable 104-week limit on temporary total disability benefits may nevertheless receive additional temporary total disability benefits during that employee=s participation in an approved retraining program. However, because the 104-week limit is applicable both Abefore the plan begins and after the plan ends,@ id., an employee who completes retraining is not eligible for additional temporary total disability benefits through 90 days following completion of the retraining plan if the 104-week limit on temporary total disability benefits was exhausted prior to commencement of retraining. In the present case, it is undisputed that the employee was paid at least 104 weeks in temporary total disability benefits prior to the date she began her retraining program at Dakota County Technical College. As such, the compensation judge correctly concluded that, pursuant to Minn. Stat. ' 176.102, subd. 11, and Minn. Stat. ' 176.101, subd. 1(k), the employee was not entitled to additional temporary total disability benefits after May 22, 2007.
As the compensation judge noted, the issue of the employee=s entitlement to additional retraining, to complete her medical coding internship, was not raised in the parties= pleadings and was not decided below. Therefore, we need not consider whether the employee is entitled to additional temporary total disability benefits while participating in the medical coding internship. Because the judge correctly applied both the stipulation for settlement and the applicable statutes, we affirm the judge=s decision allowing the employer and insurer to discontinue temporary total disability benefits effective May 22, 2007.
 The employer and insurer had initially alleged, in their notice of intention to discontinue benefits [NOID], that the employee=s retraining program had ended effective with her graduation on May 11, 2007. However, at hearing, they argued only that benefits were not payable after May 22, 2007, the date the employee completed her course work in medical coding.
 The compensation judge also concluded that the employee was entitled to temporary total disability benefits, prior to completion of her degree, during short breaks during the school year. This portion of the compensation judge=s decision is not at issue on appeal.
 The employee continues the distinction in her brief on appeal, writing, in part, that the employer and insurer Aagreed to pay the retraining benefits as temporary partial disability benefits through December 25, 2005, and at the temporary total disability benefits rate thereafter.@ However, the employee=s characterization of these benefits is not supported by the language of the stipulation. Both parties also cite App v. Kaiser Eng=g, Inc., slip op. (W.C.C.A. Mar. 2, 1987), to support the proposition that Aretraining benefits@ are different from temporary total disability compensation. However, as the compensation judge correctly pointed out, the statute applicable in App was considerably different from the current statute applicable to the employee=s claim in the present case.