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State ex rel. Workforce Safety and Insurance v. Taylor

Supreme Court of North Dakota

August 22, 2019

State of North Dakota by and through Workforce Safety and Insurance, Appellant
v.
Leonard Taylor, Appellee and Industrial Contracting, Inc., Respondent

          Appeal from the District Court of Mercer County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Cynthia M. Feland, Judge.

          Jacqueline S. Anderson, Special Assistant Attorney General, Fargo, ND, for appellant.

          Dean J. Haas, Bismarck, ND, for appellee.

          OPINION

          VANDEWALLE, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Workforce Safety and Insurance ("WSI") appealed from a judgment affirming an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") order finding Leonard Taylor had a retained earnings capacity of zero and he had good cause for noncompliance with vocational rehabilitation for failing to perform a good faith work search. Because the ALJ misapplied the law in determining Taylor had zero retained earnings capacity, we reverse the judgment and remand to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         I

         [¶2] On March 11, 2014, Taylor, then 55 years old, sustained severe work-related injuries when he fell 15 feet while employed as an electrician by Industrial Contractors, Inc. Taylor suffered multiple compression fractures of the thoracic vertebrae from T8-10, with a fragment impinging the spinal cord resulting in partial paraplegia. Taylor underwent surgery and was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, incomplete paraplegia at T5-6, neurogenic bowel and bladder, a closed head injury, and neuropathic pain. While at the hospital, Taylor exhibited numerous signs of cognitive dysfunction. Taylor was eventually transferred to a hospital rehabilitation unit where he received physical, occupational, and cognitive therapy. WSI accepted liability for Taylor's claim and paid him benefits.

         [¶3] After he had improved, Taylor was discharged from the rehabilitation unit on April 22, 2014, and he moved out of state. He began receiving outpatient rehabilitation at various facilities. He continued to have only partial control of his bladder and bowel and was unable to ambulate without a cane or walker. He received home health care services which began at 25 hours per week and was subsequently reduced to 12 to 15 hours per week. He continued to suffer severe pain in his lower back. His pain was exacerbated by prolonged standing, sitting and walking, which was relieved by laying down. He required a rolling walker and was not able to return to work. His brain injury also resulted in Taylor having learning deficits.

         [¶4] In August 2015, Taylor participated in a functional capacity evaluation ("FCE") which resulted in a recommendation of a light, physical demand level of work. He was given various lifting restrictions and positional restrictions, including no crouching, kneeling or balancing and only occasional standing, walking, bending and climbing. Taylor also began receiving vocational rehabilitation consultations. Retraining options were considered but were thought to be unworkable because of his deficits in memory, processing speed, and attention. The vocational consultant's report ("VCR") was submitted on May 18, 2016. The VCR ruled out the "first appropriate option[s]" for rehabilitation services under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-01(4) because Taylor could not return to modified work with his previous employer and no job goals were identified as feasible options. He was continuing to receive personal care assistance up to 15 hours per week. Under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-01(6)(c), the VCR set Taylor's retained earnings capacity to be $290 per week based on the state's hourly minimum wage. The VCR listed potential job search goals for Taylor which included working as a telephone sales representative, a customer service representative, or an account or bill collector. WSI then informed Taylor that he was required to perform a good faith work search and document at least five job contacts per day. After Taylor failed to comply with the work search requirements, WSI terminated his benefits under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-04(6).

         [¶5] Taylor requested rehearing of WSI's decisions that he had a retained earnings capacity of $290 per week and that he failed without good cause to make a good faith work search. Following a hearing, the ALJ reversed both of WSI's decisions. The ALJ accepted the opinion of Taylor's treating physician, Dr. Steven Musick, who considered Taylor to be unemployable, over the opinion of WSI's doctor, Dr. Gregory Peterson. The ALJ found by the "greater weight of the evidence" that "there was no valid release" to work issued to Taylor and the "greater weight of the evidence" established that Taylor has a retained earnings capacity of zero. The ALJ also found that Taylor established good cause for his failure to conduct a good faith work search. WSI appealed to the district court which affirmed the ALJ's decision.

         II

         [¶6] WSI argues the ALJ erred in reversing its decisions that Taylor had a retained earnings capacity of $290 per week and that Taylor failed to comply with the good faith work search requirements.

         [¶7] We exercise limited appellate review of administrative agency decisions under the Administrative Agencies Practice Act, N.D.C.C. ch. 28-32. See Welch v. Workforce Safety & Ins., 2017 ND 210, ¶ 11, 900 N.W.2d 822. Under N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46(1) and (5), we must affirm an administrative decision unless "[t]he order is not in accordance with the law" or "[t]he findings of fact made by the agency are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence." In Higginbotham v. Workforce Safety & Ins., 2014 ND 147, ¶ 7, 849 N.W.2d 233, we explained:

When an ALJ issues findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order, this Court recognizes the ALJ was in a better position to observe and assess the credibility of witnesses and resolve conflicts in evidence, and will therefore apply the same deferential standard of review to the ALJ's factual findings as used for agency decisions. Bishop [v. Workforce Safety & Ins.], 2012 ND 217, ΒΆ 6, 823 N.W.2d 257. With respect to an ALJ's findings of fact, this Court "do[es] not make independent findings or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ, but determine[s] only whether a reasoning mind reasonably could ha ve determined the findings were proven by ...

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