April 17th, 2019 Guest Post – Meuser Law Office, P.A. “PERA and the Two-Year Rule”

If you have a potentially career ending injury, you should immediately consult with a Minnesota attorney who practices in PERA and MSRS disability law. Although it may be too soon to determine if you can return to work, you should still consult with an attorney right away to learn about your options. If you wait two years after your work injury it may be too late to apply for PERA or MSRS Duty Disability benefits.

To receive Duty Disability benefits, Minnesota police officers, deputy sheriffs, firefighters, and corrections officers must show that he or she has a condition that is expected to prevent him or her from performing “the normal duties” of his or her position for a period of twelve months as “a direct result of an injury incurred during the performance of inherently dangerous duties that are specific to” the position of police officer. See Minn. Stat. § 353.01, subd, 41. Members of the police and fire plan must show:

• The injury will persist for over one year
• The injury was sustained while performing inherently dangerous duties specific to the position
• The disablement is a direct result of the injury

When the date of the disabling injury is more than two years prior to filing an application for Duty Disability benefits, police officers, deputy sheriffs, corrections officers, and firefighters must also demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform the most recent duties that were expected to be performed by him or her in the 90 days preceding his or her application, under Minnesota Statute § 353.031, Subdivision 4(b). The issue that frequently arises in cases with disabling injuries over two years old is that the State, cities, and counties often offer light duty for the injured worker. PERA has a restrictive view on the term “duties” in Minnesota Statute §353.01, subdivision 4(b). If a police officer or firefighter is able to work desk duty then PERA will frequently deny his or her application.

Meuser Law Office, P.A. has successfully argued in contested case hearings that PERA unfairly limits the definition of “duties” expected to perform, however this issue has not yet been heard in front of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and it is costly for claimants to litigate their case through numerous appeals. We argue that the term “duties” in Minnesota Statute § 353.01, subdivision 4(b) refers to the full range of duties of the member, not the particular temporary assignment. For example, an officer working missing persons desk duty is still a licensed peace officer in the state of Minnesota, able to effect arrests, use a weapon, and maintain order. But given an officer’s physical restrictions he or she is unable to effect arrests, subdue suspects, or ensure his or her own safety.

Administrative Law Judges’ past decisions, the rules of statutory interpretation, and public policy support this interpretation of the term “duties.” Interpreting “duties” to mean the duties of the position held by the member in the ninety-days preceding the application promotes public policy by preserving judicial economy; eliminating improper financial incentives to public employers; and upholding the legislative intent of the statute, including the purpose behind the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act.

This interpretation avoids wasting PERA, the employer, and the member’s time and resources, which would be spent comparing conflicting post hoc job descriptions and definitions of the applicant’s “duties.” This interpretation also encourages a public employer to only offer light duty for ninety-days, in light of the financial advantage. Otherwise qualified public employees injured in the line of duty would then not be eligible for Duty Disability benefits because public employers will “work the statute” by employing injured employees in a light duty capacity for only ninety-days and therefore avoid any financial obligation owed under the statute.

PERA’s interpretation discourages members from attempting to return to work, even in a light duty capacity, and encourages members to refuse light duty assignments offered by employers. Incentivizing employees to refuse light duty work runs contrary to the purpose of the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act. Almost all members who sustain a qualifying injury under the PERA Police and Fire plan qualify for Minnesota Workers’ Compensation benefits and a central tenet of the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act is to return injured workers back to work.

Subsequently, employees will be forced to choose between PERA and worker’s compensation benefits. The Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act specifically permits employers to discontinue wage loss benefits if an employee refuses an offer of employment. See, e.g, Minn. Stat. § 176.101, subd. 1(i); Minn. Stat. § 176.102, subd. 4. Therefore, the City’s interpretation places qualified employees in the position of deciding which benefit to jeopardize: PERA disability benefits or workers’ compensation benefits.

Meuser Law Office, P.A. is one of the few workers’ compensation law firms in the state of Minnesota that also handles PERA and MSRS disability claims. We’ve successfully represented hundreds of State Patrol, police officers and firefighters throughout the state for both workers’ compensation and PERA/MSRS disability claims. Sitting down with us for a consultation to learn more about your potential claims is a lot like financial planning. We can explain what rights you have and make recommendations to you in terms of how to best protect your rights to those benefits. The knowledgeable attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A. can help make the process easier to navigate. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation by calling 1-877-746-5680.