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Correa v. Waymouth Farms

July 3, 2003

FERNANDO CORREA, RESPONDENT,
v.
WAYMOUTH FARMS, INC., AND ST. PAUL MERCURY INSURANCE CO., RELATORS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Under Minnesota Statutes § 176.101, subdivision 1(g) (2002), aliens unauthorized to work in the United States are not, as a matter of law, precluded from receiving temporary total disability benefits conditioned on a diligent job search.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Page, Justice.

Affirmed.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

Waymouth Farms, Inc., and its workers' compensation insurer, St. Paul Mercury Insurance Company (collectively, Waymouth Farms), seek review of a decision of the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) affirming an award of temporary total disability benefits to Fernando Correa (Correa). We affirm.

Born in Mexico, Correa came to the United States in 1987 with a passport and visa. Although Correa has lived and worked in the United States since 1987, he has never become a citizen nor obtained legal authorization to work in the United States. In November 1999, Waymouth Farms, a producer and packager of meat products and gifts, hired Correa to work full-time in its warehouse as an order picker. Correa filled candy orders, which required him to lift boxes weighing up to 50 pounds.

On March 3, 2000, while performing his regular duties at Waymouth Farms, Correa bent down to lift a 30-pound box off of the floor and felt pain in his back. When he stood up, the pain dissipated so he continued to work. The next day, Saturday, the pain was so intense Correa had difficulty getting out of bed. When he returned to work on Monday, Correa reported the injury to his supervisor. Waymouth Farms accepted the injury as compensable under the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act (Act), but initially did not pay any benefits because Correa continued to work. At the time of his injury, Correa was also employed at Schlotzsky's Restaurant (Schlotzsky's).

Correa received medical treatment for the pain in his lower back and left leg from Dr. Gomez at the Noran Neurological Clinic. When the pain continued to increase, Dr.áGomez referred Correa to a neurosurgeon. On July 20, 2000, Correa underwent microdiscectomy surgery at L-4 and 5. Waymouth Farms paid Correa wage loss benefits, covered his medical expenses arising from the surgery, and provided rehabilitation services, including the services of a qualified rehabilitation consultant (QRC).

After the surgery, Correa received follow-up treatment from Dr. Gomez, underwent physical therapy, and completed a work-hardening program. Upon completion of the work-hardening program, Dr. Gomez authorized Correa to return to work on a restricted basis. Dr. Gomez limited Correa to a maximum of four-hour shifts and instructed him to frequently change positions and avoid bending. On December 19, 2000, Correa returned to work part-time at Waymouth Farms. As a result of the restrictions, Correa was unable to resume his position as an order picker and Waymouth Farms provided him with light-duty work. Correa also attempted to return to work at Schlotzsky's, but Schlotzsky's refused to allow him to return until he was released to work without medical restrictions.

On February 7, 2001, Waymouth Farms notified Correa that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had discovered: (1) the alien registration number Correa provided did not exist; (2) the social security number provided by Correa did not match his name; and (3) there was no alien registration number that corresponded to Correa's name and birth date. Waymouth Farms suspended Correa and gave him 48 hours to provide valid documentation of his eligibility to work in the United States. On February 9, 2001, Correa notified Waymouth Farms that he could not provide the requested documentation. Waymouth Farms then terminated Correa's employment effective February 7, 2001.

After his termination, Correa, although still subject to medical restrictions, commenced a job search. He conducted the job search on his own without the assistance of the QRC. Because of his restrictions, he was only able to conduct the job search for two to three hours per day. Correa testified that as a result of his job search he located several potential jobs, including one with a former employer, but was not offered employment due to his back injury and resulting work restrictions.

While conducting the job search, Correa continued to receive follow-up care and physical therapy, but the pain in his back and left leg increased. On March 6, 2001, Correa sought a second surgical opinion from Dr. Sunny Kim. Dr. Kim recommended that Correa undergo a L4-5 repeat decompression and a two-level fusion and remain off work until after the surgery. As a result, Correa suspended his job search. On April 4, 2001, Correa filed a medical request seeking approval for the surgery recommended by Dr. Kim.

On February 21, 2001, shortly after terminating Correa, Waymouth Farms filed a notice of intention to discontinue Correa's temporary total disability benefits on the ground that he was medically released to work but could not, as an unauthorized alien, legally work in the United States. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. ยง 176.239 (2002), Correa objected to the discontinuance and requested an administrative conference. Correa also filed a claim petition for temporary total disability benefits. Following an ...


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