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In re: the Claim for Benefits by Scott Sletten: EMPLOYMENT - firefighter entitled to continuing health care benefits; injured in cave rescue

STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
A06-2263
In the Matter of the Claim for Benefits by Scott Sletten
Filed December 24, 2007
Reversed
Randall, Judge
Minnesota Public Safety Officers Benefits Eligibility Panel
File No. 092506-0044
William J. Krueger, William J. Krueger, P.A., 888 West County Road D, Suite 205, New
Brighton, MN 55112 (for relator Scott Sletten)
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Bernard E. Johnson, Assistant Attorney General, 1800
Bremer Towner, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2134 (for respondent
Minnesota Public Safety Officers Benefit Eligibility Panel)
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and
Hudson, Judge.
S Y L L A B U S
A firefighter who is forced to retire after sustaining injuries during a cave
rescue is entitled to continuing health care benefits under Minn. Stat. 299A.465 (2006).
Cave rescue is an occupational duty or professional responsibility. The firefighter was at
risk for the type of injury he sustained.
O P I N I O N
2
RANDALL, Judge
On certiorari appeal from a determination of the Minnesota Public Safety Officer
Eligibility Panel (MPSOEP) denying his claim for continuing payment of employers
contribution to health insurance coverage under Minn. Stat. 299A.465, subd. 1 (2006),
relator argues that MPSOEP erred in denying his claim for benefits. Relator argues that
regardless of whether the focus is on a 2002 injury involving moving a chair, or a 2004
injury involving a cave rescue, he is entitled to benefits because both injuries occurred
while he was acting within the scope of his duties as a firefighter. The injury that
ultimately forced relator to retire occurred during a 2004 cave rescue. The cave rescue
was an occupational duty or professional responsibility that put relator at risk for the type
of injury he sustained. We reverse.
FACTS
Relator Scott Sletten was employed as a firefighter for the City of St. Paul from
May 11, 1992, until August 11, 2006. On February 18, 2002, while working at Fire
Station 1, relator injured his left shoulder and ruptured a disc in his neck. The injury
occurred when relator picked up a chair to carry it into the kitchen [at the fire station],
and he received workers compensation benefits as a result of the injury.
In September 2002, relator returned to work after being on leave from the injury.
Relator reinjured himself on April 27, 2004, while performing a cave rescue. Relator
reported the injury two days later; he did not receive any immediate medical treatment for
the injury, nor did he initially miss any time from work. It was not until July 2004, after
3
his left shoulder and arm pain worsened, that relator requested a referral to Physicians
Neck and Back Clinic for treatment of the injury.
In October 2004, relator began receiving workers compensation benefits as a
result of the re-aggravation of his shoulder injury. Sometime thereafter, relator
determined that he was unable to resume his duties as a firefighter due to his injury. In
August 2006, relator was awarded a Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA)
duty-related disability pension. Shortly thereafter, when the City of St. Paul was
informed that relator was awarded PERA disability benefits, it terminated relators
temporary total disability workers compensation benefits. A month later, relator filed
his eligibility application form with respondent Minnesota Public Safety Officers Benefit
Eligibility Panel (MPSOEP) requesting continuing health care benefits under Minn. Stat.
299A.465, subd. 1 (2006).
MPSOEP met to consider relators claims on October 12, 2006. By a five-to-one
vote, MPSOEP denied appellants claim for benefits. MPSOEP issued an order denying
relators claim because the evidence is inconclusive that [relators] occupational duties
or professional responsibilities put him at risk for the type of illness or injury actually
sustained. This certiorari appeal followed.
ISSUE
Did MPSOEP err in concluding that the evidence did not conclusively establish
that relators occupational duties or professional responsibilities put him at risk for the
type of injuries he sustained?
4
ANALYSIS
Appellate courts presume that an agencys decision is correct, and will defer to an
agencys expertise and its special knowledge in the field of [its] technical training,
education and experience. In re Med. License of Friedenson, 574 N.W.2d 463, 465
(Minn. App. 1998), (alteration in original) (quotation omitted) review denied (Minn. Apr.
30, 1998). But when reviewing legal questions, appellate courts are not bound by the
decision of the agency and need not defer to agency expertise. St. Ottos Home v. Minn.
Dept of Human Servs., 437 N.W.2d 35, 39-40 (Minn. 1989). Statutory construction is a
question of law reviewed de novo. Houston v. Intl Data Transfer Corp., 645 N.W.2d
144, 149 (Minn. 2002).
Under Minnesota law, an employer shall continue to provide health coverage to a
firefighter and the firefighters dependents until the firefighter reaches the age of 65 if the
firefighter suffers a disabling injury that: (1) results in the . . . firefighters retirement or
separation from service; (2) occurs while the . . . firefighter is acting in the course and
scope of duties as a . . . firefighter; and (3) the . . . firefighter has been approved to
receive the . . . firefighters duty-related disability pension. Minn. Stat. 299A.465,
subd. 1 (2006). In 2005, the legislature added subdivision 6 to section 299A.465, which
states:
Whenever a . . . firefighter has been approved to
receive a duty-related disability pension, the . . . firefighter
may apply to the [MPSOEP]1 for a determination of whether
1 The MPSOEP is composed of the following seven members: two members
recommended by the Minnesota League of Cities; one member recommended by the
Association of Minnesota Counties; two members recommended by the Minnesota Police
5
or not the . . . firefighter meets the requirements in
subdivision 1, paragraph (a), clause (2). In making this
decision, the [MPSOEP] shall determine whether or not the . .
. firefighters occupational duties or professional
responsibilities put the . . . firefighter at risk for the type of
illness or injury actually sustained.
Minn. Stat. 299A.465, subd. 6(a) (2006).2 This section applies to duty-related pension
approvals made on or after July 1, 2005. 2005 Minn. Laws ch. 136, art. 8, 7, at 1008.
The plain meaning of section 299A.465, subdivisions 1(a) and 6, creates a twopart
test for determining whether a former firefighter is entitled to benefits. First, a
firefighter must establish that he has been approved to receive a duty-related disability
pension. Id., subd. 6. The undisputed record shows that relator has satisfied this
requirement.
Second, the panel must determine whether the firefighter suffered a disabling
injury while acting in the course and scope of his duties as a firefighter. Id., subds.
1(a)(2), 6(a). This standard does not encompass any injury a [firefighter] incurs while
on duty; instead, it is limited to only those illnesses or injuries arising from the risks
associated with the [firefighters] occupational duties or professional responsibilities. In
re Claim for Benefits by Sloan, 729 N.W.2d 626, 630 (Minn. App. 2007) (citing Minn.
Stat. 299A.465, subd. 6).
and Peace Officers Association; one member recommended by the Minnesota
Professional Firefighters Association; and one nonorganizational member recommended
by the six organizational members. Minn. Stat. 299A.465, subd. 7(a) (2006).
2 Section 299A.465, subd. 6, expires July 1, 2008. Minn. Stat. 299A.465, subd. 6(b)
(2006).
6
In denying relators claim, MPSOEP concluded that the evidence is inconclusive
that his occupational duties or professional responsibilities put him at risk for the type of
illness or injury actually sustained. MPSOEP failed to make any findings explaining its
decision. MPSOEP appears to conclude that it was the 2002 injury involving the chair,
rather than the 2004 cave rescue, that ultimately forced relator to retire. Thus, it appears
the panel denied relators claim feeling the injury involving the chair did not occur while
relator was acting within the course and scope of his duties as a firefighter.
Relator argues that MPSOEPs decision is erroneous because both the 2002 injury
involving the chair, and the 2004 cave rescue injury, occurred while he was acting within
the scope of his duties as a firefighter. To support his claim, relator asserts that it was
part of his responsibility as a firefighter to clean the fire station, and that a refusal to
accept this responsibility would lead to discipline, if not termination of his employment.
Relator argues that because he was injured when moving a chair to wash the kitchen
floor, his injury occurred while he was acting within the course and scope of his duties as
a firefighter. Relator further argues the 2004 injury occurring during the cave rescue also
falls within the statutory language because he was acting within the scope and duties as a
firefighter by crawling around in a cave performing rescue operations. Relator contends
that regardless of whether we focus on the 2002 injury involving the chair, or the 2004
cave rescue, he is entitled to benefits.
A. 2002 chair injury
Relator correctly asserts that his duties as a firefighter include maintenance and
care of quarters, equipment, tools, apparatus, and grounds. Relator claims that he was
7
performing such a duty in 2002 when his injury occurred. We acknowledge that despite
the seemingly harmless action of moving a chair, it was a bona fide injury, with bona
fide medical bills, and a bona fide layoff. The injury was recognizable as compensable
with workers compensation benefits. The issue is whether this compensable injury is the
kind to also allow relator (over and above workers compensation and over and above
temporary/total partial/full disability) the other perk of medical insurance coverage for
life.
This issue has been analyzed by our court several times. In In re Claim for
Benefits by Hagert, a police officer was forced to retire after he sustained injuries when
he crashed his motorcycle responding to a theft report. 730 N.W.2d 546, 547 (Minn.
App. 2007). This court held that the decision to deny him insurance benefits was
erroneous because the officers duty to travel on a motorcycle put him at risk for the
injuries he sustained. Id. at 550.
Similarly, in In re Claim for Benefits by Meuleners, a peace officer was forced to
retire after he was injured when he slipped on icy stairs while serving an eviction notice.
725 N.W.2d 121, 122 (Minn. App. 2006). This court concluded that the peace officer
was entitled to benefits because the fall occurred while he was acting in the course and
scope of his duties as a deputy sheriff. Id. at 125.
Finally, in Sloan, a peace officer responded to a call about a suspicious object
placed about ten feet from the main entrance to a building on the University of Minnesota
campus. Sloan, 729 N.W.2d at 628. When he arrived at the scene, the peace officer
discovered that the object was a large console television. Id. Because the call occurred
8
in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the peace officer was concerned about the
possibility that the console might contain a bomb. Id. After determining that the object
was benign, the officer, using his professional judgment, decided to remove the console
and place it in the trunk of his squad car because the object was causing . . . a lot of
anxiety. Id. While moving the console, the peace officer sustained an injury that forced
him to retire. Id. In determining whether the officer was entitled to health insurance
benefits, this court held that:
a peace officers occupational duties or professional
responsibilities include exercises of professional judgment
that are legitimately calculated to protect the health, safety,
and general welfare of the public. Indicia of poor judgment
does not disqualify the officer from benefits if his or her
actions were reasonable under the facts and circumstances
immediately available to the officer.
Id. at 630-31 (establishing an objective test to determine whether a claimant has satisfied
the statutory requirements of Minn. Stat. 299A.465). The court held that the peace
officer was entitled to benefits because the officers injury resulted from a reasonable
exercise of professional judgment, which was legitimately calculated to protect the
health, safety, and general welfare of the public. Id. at 631.
These cases articulate that there is no narrow limiting requirement that the injury
be indigenous to fighting fires or police work. See id., at 630 (rejecting a unique-to-thejob
analysis when considering claims under section 299A.465, subd. 6, because such a
test excluded conduct that, although mundane and ordinary, is incidental to proper
discharge of an officers duties). In other words, an applicant for benefits under section
9
299A.465, does not have to sustain an injury while fighting fires or shooting at the
bad guys to be eligible for benefits under the Minn. Stat. 299A.465.
The addendum to the statute has to mean something. This is precisely the question
here. Anybody can end up moving a piece of office furniture around, assuming it was
something they should be doing as part of the work day. Any secretary judicial or nonjudicial,
legal or non-legal any housewife, gardener, plumber, doctor, lawyer, judge,
cleaning his or her office; any of those groups could move a chair or a table, suffer an
arm, leg, or back injury, and pull workers compensation. On the other hand, if the injury
is received during work hours and on a task either explicitly or implicitly assigned to you
and if you put a claim for workers compensation benefits and it is honored, relator
argues why should the inquiry go any further? However, we do not need to answer the
precise question of the chair. Relator sustained a later injury; an injury that forced him
to retire, that is not in dispute under the statute.
B. 2004 cave rescue injury
Respondent argues the 2004 cave rescue falls within the ambit of the statutory
language. Respondent argues that because relator did not immediately seek medical
treatment, the focus should not be on this injury.
This is not the test. We acknowledge that the record and transcript is short. But
relators expert found bona fide injury and disability following the cave rescue.
MPSOEPs own independent medical consultant agreed that relator is presently disabled
and that relators disability appears to be related to a specific event occurring in the line
of duty. There is nothing in the record to support a disregard of these medical
10
examinations. The record reflects that the cave rescue injury was the injury that forced
relator to retire. Cave rescue is an occupational duty or professional responsibility of
firefighters. MPSOEP erred in denying relators claim for benefits.
D E C I S I O N
The injury that forced relator to retire occurred while relator was performing the
cave rescue in 2004. The cave rescue was an occupational duty or professional
responsibility that put him at risk for the type of injury he sustained. Relator is entitled to
continuing health coverage benefits.
Reversed.
 

 
 
 

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