Hoffman v. North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau

Decision Date09 April 1999
Docket NumberNo. 980182,980182
Citation592 N.W.2d 533
PartiesJames HOFFMAN, Claimant and Appellant, v. NORTH DAKOTA WORKERS COMPENSATION BUREAU, Appellee.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Joseph F. Larson II, Jamestown, ND, for claimant and appellant.

Harry Malcolm Pippin, Special Assistant Attorney General, Williston, ND, for appellee.

MARING, Justice.

¶1 James Hoffman appealed from a district court judgment affirming the North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau's suspension of Hoffman's disability and rehabilitation benefits for his failure to comply with a rehabilitation training plan. We reverse, holding James Hoffman had "good cause" under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-04(6) to not attend the approved vocational rehabilitation program when the Bureau wrongfully denied him a second domicile allowance. We remand for reinstatement of benefits and payment of accrued benefits erroneously terminated.

I

¶2 Hoffman suffered a work-related injury to his arm on January 31, 1992, while working as an automobile mechanic helper and muffler installer for Scotti's Exhaust Company in Jamestown, North Dakota. The Bureau accepted Hoffman's claim and began paying associated medical expenses and disability benefits. In December 1992, the Bureau initiated vocational rehabilitation services under N.D.C.C. ch. 65-05.1, and Hoffman underwent a medical and vocational assessment as required by that chapter. The Bureau determined Hoffman's first appropriate rehabilitation option under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-01(4) was short-term training of a year or less.

¶3 Over the course of the next two years the Bureau's vocational rehabilitation consultants worked with Hoffman to identify an appropriate retraining program. While various types of programs were contemplated, for reasons not clear from the record, none were selected during this time. The record does reflect, however, that James Hoffman's relationship with the Bureau and its representatives was hardly an amicable one. During the latter part of 1994, Hoffman made a number of threats of physical violence to his vocational rehabilitation consultant. As a result, the Bureau replaced Hoffman's rehabilitation consultant with another, and instructed the new consultant to have no contact with Hoffman while developing Hoffman's vocational rehabilitation plan.

¶4 On January 5, 1995, the Bureau selected the Meyer Vocational Technical School's (Meyer VoTech's) industrial safety/security and investigations training program as Hoffman's rehabilitation program. Hoffman's physician approved his participation in the plan. The Meyer VoTech program, located in Minot, North Dakota, commenced one month later on February 6, 1995, and ended June 23, 1995. Because of Hoffman's non-participation with the development of his retraining program, the first he heard of the Meyer VoTech program was on January 25, 1995, when he received a letter from the Bureau informing him about the program. Two days later, on January 27, 1995, the Bureau issued an order awarding rehabilitation benefits and ordering Hoffman to attend the Meyer VoTech program. The order also declared Hoffman ineligible for an additional 25 percent allowance to maintain a second household under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-06.1(2)(b). Hoffman testified he received a copy of the order on January 30, 1995. The record clearly reflects Hoffman decided not to attend the Meyer VoTech program within a day or two of receipt of the Bureau's letter dated January 24, 1995.

¶5 On February 7, 1995, the Bureau informed Hoffman he risked suspension of his benefits because he had failed to attend the Meyer VoTech program. In a letter to the Bureau dated February 14, 1995, Hoffman voiced several concerns about the Meyer VoTech program and requested reconsideration on the matter. The Bureau discontinued Hoffman's benefits in an order dated March 13,1995, for failing to attend, or showing good cause why he should not have attended, the Meyer VoTech program. Hoffman timely requested a formal hearing on the matter.

¶6 During the summer of 1995, the Bureau declared the industrial safety/security and investigations program at Meyer VoTech an unsatisfactory retraining program. Formal hearings were subsequently held on March 15, 1996, and on April 19, 1996. Following the hearings, the ALJ upheld the Bureau's order concluding: 1) a preponderance of the evidence shows the vocational retraining program the Bureau ordered Hoffman to attend was valid under North Dakota law as of January 5, 1995; 2) Hoffman did not have good cause to not attend the retraining program; and 3) the Bureau appropriately discontinued Hoffman's benefits. The Bureau adopted the ALJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law, with the exception of recommended conclusion of law number 8 which stated Hoffman was entitled to reinstatement of his benefits upon notifying the Bureau of his willingness to comply with the Bureau's vocational rehabilitation plan. Instead, the Bureau concluded Hoffman was not entitled to a reinstatement of his benefits until he complied with the Bureau's plan or a substitute plan. Hoffman appealed to the district court which affirmed the Bureau's order.

II

¶7 On appeal from a district court's review of a decision by the Bureau, we review the Bureau's decision. Hoyem v. North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau, 1998 ND 86, p 5, 578 N.W.2d 117. We affirm the Bureau's decision unless its findings of fact are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence, its conclusions of law are not supported by its findings of fact, its decision is not supported by its conclusions of law, or its decision is not in accordance with the law. Id.; N.D.C.C. § 28-32-19. In evaluating the findings of fact, we do not make independent findings or substitute our judgment for the Bureau, but determine only whether a reasoning mind reasonably could have determined the findings were proved by the weight of the evidence from the entire record. Hibl v. North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau, 1998 ND 198, p 7, 586 N.W.2d 167.

III

¶8 The purpose of vocational rehabilitation is to return a disabled employee to substantial gainful employment with a minimum of retraining, as soon as possible after an injury. N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-01(3). The version of N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-01(3) applicable to this case defined substantial gainful employment as:

bona fide work, for remuneration, which is reasonably attainable in light of the individual's injury, medical limitations, age, education, previous occupation, experience, and transferable skills, and which offers an opportunity to restore the employee as soon as practical.... 1

We will not reverse the Bureau's selection of a vocational rehabilitation plan under N.D.C.C. ch. 65-05.1 if there is "evidence from which a reasoning mind could have reasonably concluded that the rehabilitation plan would return [the worker] to substantial gainful employment which was reasonably attainable in light of his injury and which would substantially rehabilitate his earning capacity...." Held v. North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau, 540 N.W.2d 166, 169 (N.D.1995) (quoting Thompson v. North Dakota Workers' Compensation Bureau, 490 N.W.2d 248, 255 (N.D.1992).

¶9 Hoffman argues his nonattendance at the retraining program should be excused because the program selected by the Bureau was subsequently declared unsatisfactory for retraining, and thus would not have returned him to substantial gainful employment under N.D.C.C. § 65-05.1-01(3). We disagree with Hoffman's argument, as it mistakenly assumes that a retraining program's ability to return a claimant to gainful employment may be assessed with hindsight. "The question for the hearing officer, and for this court ... is whether the plan, at the time, gave [the claimant] a reasonable opportunity to obtain substantial gainful employment...." Lucier v. North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau, 556 N.W.2d 56, 60 (N.D.1996) (emphasis added). Thus, our focus in this case is whether the program was viable at the time the Bureau made its selection.

¶10 All of the information the Bureau considered at the time it selected the Meyer VoTech program indicated the program would offer Hoffman a reasonable opportunity for gainful employment. The vocational rehabilitation consultant relied on the placement figures provided by Meyer VoTech and the school's assurances it would work to accommodate a student's physical and academic needs. Although the placement figures were only for the first class to complete the training program and were not entirely accurate, the correct figures still showed a reasonable opportunity for employment upon completion of the program. Government statistics at the time also indicated this particular field was expected to grow at a faster than average rate through the year 2005. On these facts, we conclude the Bureau's finding that the Meyer VoTech program would provide Hoffman with a reasonable opportunity for gainful employment as of January 5, 1995, when the program was selected, is supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

¶11 Hoffman also crafts a due process argument from the fact the Meyer VoTech program was subsequently declared invalid. Hoffman claims he was denied due process because the Bureau refused to rely on any evidence following the date Hoffman was ordered to begin his vocational retraining. He asserts the fact the Meyer VoTech program was declared unsatisfactory should have been considered by the Bureau in determining whether the program would return him to substantial gainful employment. On these facts, we disagree.

¶12 A person is denied due process or a fair hearing when the defects in the hearing process might lead to a denial of justice. See, e.g., Carlson v. Job Service North Dakota, 548 N.W.2d 389, 395 (N.D.1996). The fundamental requirements of due process are notice of the contemplated action and an opportunity to be heard. Beckler v. North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau, 418 N.W.2d 770, 773 (N...

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