This is the final article in a series of three, explaining a correctional officer’s right to receive Duty Disability benefits following a debilitating, on-the-job injury. It is the perspective of the attorneys at Meuser Law Office that special consideration should be given to all government employees who devote their time to protecting the public, and, as such, they will work tirelessly to ensure injured correctional officers and other public employees are provided with fair access to Duty Disability benefits. Click here if you would like to read the first article in the series or click here if you would like to read the second article in the series.
C. Element 3: Inherent Dangers Specific to a Correctional Officer
The final element in the Duty Disability analysis is whether the performance of a correctional officer’s duties presented inherent dangers specific to the positions covered by the Local Government Correctional Service Retirement Plan. This element consists of two subparts: 1) whether the duty presented inherent dangers, and 2) whether the inherent dangers were specific to the position.
To be “specific” to the position of a correctional officer, it is our opinion, that the inherent danger need only be common to the job. It does not have to be unique or exclusive to the job. See In re Claim for Benefits by Sloan, 729 N.W.2d 626, 630 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007) (noting the panel’s unique-to-the-job analysis improperly excluded conduct that, although mundane and ordinary, is incidental to the proper discharge of officer’s duties); see also Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) (defining “specific” as particular or defined).
Furthermore, it is our opinion that the plain language of Minnesota Statutes section 353E.001 is definitive on this issue. The legislature chose to use the word “specific” instead of the word “unique.” If the legislature intended to award benefits only if the inherent danger was “unique” to the occupation then it could have used this word as it had in other statutes. See e.g., Minn. Stat. § 462.357 (2013) (stating a factor to take into consideration regarding whether to grant a variance to zoning ordinance is whether landowner’s plight is the result of circumstances “unique” to the property); Minn. Stat. § 182.653 (2013) (stating commissioner must take into account factors which are “unique” to farming operations); see also In re Claim for Benefits by Hagert, 730 N.W.2d 546 (Minn. 2007) (holding it was improper for panel to apply a “unique-to-the-job” standard when the statute’s language is unambiguous and did not require this inquiry); In re Claim for Benefits by Sloan, 729 N.W.2d 626 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007) (holding “unique-to-the-job-test” is inappropriate because it focuses on whether an officer’s activity is unique to law enforcement but does not determine whether the officer suffered a disabling injury). Just like the line of cases set forth above, which discuss the Panel’s improper use of the unique-to-the-job test in conjunction with statutes that do not contain the word “unique,” Minnesota Statutes section 353E.001 (2012) does not contain the word “unique” and the Court should therefore reject the unique-to-the-job test here too. The Minnesota Legislature deliberately left the word “unique” out of the provision for duty disability benefits, and as the line of cases above suggests, the Minnesota Supreme Court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals have consistently rejected the Panel’s unique-to-the job test in the context of continuing health care benefits. In the present case, the Court should follow suit and reject PERA’s narrow interpretation of the word “specific” and not impose an additional burden upon the applicant, which is not required by the statute. Instead, the word “specific” should be given its plain meaning within the context of the statute––common to the position of a correctional officer.
Moreover, PERA’s contention that the word “specific” should be interpreted to mean “unique” would lead to absurd results and if accepted would, in effect, render Minnesota Statutes section 353E.001 useless because there is no such thing as an action that is distinctly unique to the position of correctional officer. In the past, PERA has argued to the Board that to be “specific” and recover benefits under the Duty Disability statute, the inherent danger encountered by the applicant must be one only encountered by correctional officers and it cannot be a danger that is also encountered by members of the general public. While this definition has been accepted in some cases, this narrow interpretation of the statute, in our opinion, has the potential to lead to harsh and absurd results because every inherent danger encountered by correctional officers––for example, running, firing a gun, and even confrontations with dangerous persons––are also risks to which the general public is exposed. For example, in the case of a firefighter who injures his back by lifting a large man onto a stretcher, the act of lifting is not unique to the position of a firefighter because those in the general public lift heavy objects and people everyday. However, the act of lifting heavy objects and people is considered specific, or common, to the position of a firefighter. Due to the illogical results, the legislature could not have intended the word “specific” to mean “unique” in the context of the duty disability statute, and the court should not rely on this narrow interpretation in awarding Duty Disability benefits. See Minn. Stat. § 645.17, subd. 1 (“The legislature does not intend a result that is absurd, impossible of execution, or unreasonable.”).
WHAT CAN THE ATTORNEYS AT MEUSER LAW DO FOR YOU?
Meuser Law Office, P.A. proudly represents hundreds of police officers, firefighters, and correctional officers across the state of Minnesota for workers’ compensation, personal injury, and PERA claims. Due to our years of experience, Meuser Law Office, P.A. is in the unique position of understanding the specific needs of correctional officers who attempt to navigate what is often a difficult and complicated area of the law. Because Meuser Law Office, P.A. practices in workers’ compensation, personal injury, and PERA Duty Disability we can handle all potential aspects of your claim to ensure that you’re able to maximize the total amount of your recovery, instead of simply focusing on one benefit or area of the law. If you want to talk to an experienced, knowledgeable attorney, call Meuser Law Office, P.A. at 877-746-5680 for a free, no-obligation consultation.
To read the previous two articles on Duty Disability benefits, click here for the first or click here to read the second article.