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Varda v. Northwest Airlines Corp.

February 24, 2005

TANYA L. VARDA, RELATOR,
v.
NORTHWEST AIRLINES CORP., AND LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE CO., RESPONDENTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Where the undisputed facts show that a 2-year retraining program would restore an injured employee to an economic status higher than she enjoyed before her disability, the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals correctly determined that the record did not support the compensation judge's conclusion that a more costly 4-year program was "necessary."

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

Dissenting, Anderson, Paul H., and Meyer, JJ.

Affirmed.

Considered and decided by the court en banc without oral argument.

OPINION

This workers' compensation matter comes before this court by certiorari upon the relation of employee Tanya L. Varda to review a decision of the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA), reversing the compensation judge's award of retraining benefits under Minn. Stat. § 176.102 (2004). Although the compensation judge awarded benefits based on a 4-year program at the College of St. Scholastica that would lead to a bachelor of arts degree in nursing, the WCCA substituted an award of retraining benefits based on a 2-year program at Hibbing Community College that would lead to an associate in science degree in nursing. Varda asserts that the compensation judge's award was supported by substantial evidence and that it was error for the WCCA to modify it. We affirm the decision of the WCCA.

Tanya Varda is a 30-year-old high school graduate who obtained a 2-year degree in sales and marketing from Range Technical College. She is married and has three children ranging in age from approximately 1 year to 6 years old. She lives in the Chisholm/Hibbing area with her family, and her stated intent is to stay in that area to raise her children.

In March 1996, Varda started working as a reservations specialist at a Northwest Airlines reservations center in Chisholm. The nature of her work required continuous computer keyboarding. For at least 9 months each year, she worked fulltime and earned $12.73 an hour. For no more than 3 months each year, she worked as a substitute supervisor, earning $19.86 an hour.

As a result of her employment, Varda sustained compensable injuries in the nature of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome with ulnar nerve involvement that culminated in disability as of August 1, 2000. She has permanent work restrictions of no more than 20 minutes of keyboarding per hour, no repetitive use of her hands and wrists and no repetitive extension of her arms. She is limited from lifting 20-25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally. Because Northwest Airlines was unable to accommodate these work restrictions, Varda's employment was terminated in March 2002.

On February 20, 2003, Varda proposed a retraining plan consisting of 4 years of college coursework at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, from September 1, 2003, through May 31, 2007, leading to a bachelor of arts degree in nursing. The estimated cost was $144,388 ($80,828 in tuition, $5,000 in books/supplies, $34,560 in mileage, and $24,000 in custodial daycare).

Varda also considered obtaining a 2-year degree from the Hibbing Community College that would qualify her to seek licensure as a registered nurse (RN). The only formal retraining plan submitted for consideration was the 4-year plan through St. Scholastica, but there was evidence that the estimated cost of the 2-year program at Hibbing Community College would be $9,500 ($7,200 in tuition, $1,500 in books/supplies, and $800 in miscellaneous items). Varda decided to seek approval for the 4-year degree.

At the hearing on the retraining dispute, Kandise Garrison, a vocational expert whom Varda retained to assess the proposed retraining plan, testified that a bachelor's degree would qualify Varda for a greater number of positions. She said that a 2-year program trains staff nurses, which represent 60% of the positions available for nurses, whereas a 4-year degree is required for the other 40% of nursing positions. Garrison testified that Varda had some work experience as a manager, and that a 4-year degree is required to secure a manager's position in nursing. Finally, she testified that St. Scholastica placed 100% of its nursing graduates with a typical starting salary of $45,000. Garrison compared this to Varda's earning capacity before her disability, but only with respect to her occasional supervisory work, which would have yielded about $40,000 a year had the work been available for a full year.

Garrison did not explicitly testify that the 2-year degree would be an unsuitable retraining program. She agreed that Varda likely would succeed at completing the Hibbing Community College program and obtaining employment. She stated that the ...


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