ORDER ON PETITIONER'S RULE 80C APPEAL
Roland Cole Chief Justice
Before the court is petitioner Dana Trattner's Rule 80C appeal challenging respondent Maine Public Employees Retirement System's denial of her application for disability retirement benefits and the subsequent denial of her appeal to the Board of Trustees (Board). For the following reasons, the court reverses respondent's denial of petitioner's application.
Petitioner has worked as an educator in Maine for approximately 17 years. Around 1993, she began working as an adult education teacher and life skills coach at Creative Work Systems. (Rule 80C record at 21.3) (hereinafter "R. ___.") From 2002 to 2004, she worked as an Ed Tech in the Scarborough School Department, and in 2004, she began working as a Library Ed Tech III at Wentworth Intermediate School. (R. 21.3.) As a Library Ed Tech III, her job duties included checking books in and out, notifying students and teachers regarding reserved books, teaching students research skills, repairing, shelving, and ordering books, monitoring students' behavior, and maintaining and operating library computers. (R. 21.3.)
In 2009, the staff was reduced from three Library Ed Techs to two. (R. 21.3.) The job duties of the Library Ed Tech who was eliminated were split between the remaining Library Ed Techs, one of whom was petitioner. (R. 10.13.) As a result, petitioner's workload increased and she allegedly was not provided with support to meet this additional demand. (R. 10.13-10.14.)
Petitioner has had issues with her hearing and vision for a number of years. (R. 21.3.) She had corneal transplants in 1982 and 1983. (R 21.3.) Sometime after 2000, she was diagnosed with moderate to severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and began using hearing aids. (R. 21.3.) In 2007 or 2008, she was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration. (R. 21.3.) Petitioner has been treated by audiologists Abagail Forcier and Marty Layne, as well as ophthalmologists Frederick Miller and Scott Steidl. (R. 21.5-21.6, 3.446.)
Petitioner asserts that, as a result of these issues, she cannot operate video equipment or digital cameras, shelve books, read books to students, or hear safety announcements related to lockdown and fire drills, among other duties. (R. 10.122-10.133.) In the spring of 2012, petitioner informed the Scarborough School Department of these issues and requested accommodations. (R. 21.4.) The school department provided her with a bell tone to help her get the students' attention, a magnifying glass to read bar codes on books, a keyboard with black-on-yellow large print keycaps, and "zoom technology" for her computer. (R. 21.4, 3.470.)
In January 2012, the school principal, Anne-Mayre Dexter, met with petitioner to discuss several work performance issues. (R. 21.4.) These issues included chronic tardiness, problems with organization, and difficulty following lesson plans completely. (R. 21.3, 3.12-3.13.) Petitioner's tardiness improved after she began commuting with a coworker, but the other issues continued. (R. 21.4.) Ms. Dexter and petitioner met again in March 2012 to devise an "action plan" to address the remaining issues. (R. 3.13.) They continued to meet regularly, but Ms. Dexter did not see improvement in petitioner's job performance. (R. 3.13.) Petitioner asserts that her performance issues were related to her vision and hearing losses, however Ms. Dexter asserts the action plan was not related to these issues. (R. 3.14, 10.147-10.149.)
On October 9, 2012, petitioner applied to respondent for disability retirement benefits on the basis of an anxiety disorder, age-related macular degeneration, corneal transplants, hearing loss, and scarring on the pons of the brain. (R. 3.7-3.9.) She resigned on October 11, 2012. (R. 21.4.) On February 7, 2013, a board of physicians acting as an advisor to respondent (Medical Board) issued four memoranda stating that the evidence petitioner submitted did not establish: (1) the existence of the anxiety disorder or (2) "functional limitations" associated with her macular degeneration, corneal transplants, hearing loss, and scarring on the pons of the brain. (R. 3.485-92.) On February 12, 2013, respondent denied her application, finding, as had the Medical Board, that the evidence petitioner submitted did not establish: (1) the existence of the anxiety disorder or (2) "functional limitations" associated with the other conditions. (R. 1.1.)
On February 19, 2013, petitioner appealed to the Board. (R. 2.1.) A hearing before a Hearing Officer occurred on July 10, 2013. (R. 10.2.) On February 4, 2014, the Hearing Officer issued her final recommended decision affirming respondent's denial. (R. 21.1-21.7.) On August 12, 2014, the Board adopted the Hearing Officer's recommended decision. (R. 27.2.) Petitioner appealed to this court on December 12, 2014. A hearing on petitioner's appeal was held on November 30, 2015.
A. Standard of Review
To qualify for disability retirement benefits, an applicant bears the burden of proof to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that "the applicant has a mental or physical incapacity that: (1) is expected to be permanent, and (2) makes it impossible to perform the duties of the applicant's employment position." Anderson v. Me. Pub. Emps. Ret. Sys., 2009 ME 134, ¶ 4, 985 A.2d 501; 5 M.R.S. § 17921 (1)(A)-(B) (2014); Douglas v. Bd. of Trs., 669 A.2d 177, 179 (Me. 1996). "When an agency concludes that the party with the burden of proof failed to meet that burden, [the court] will reverse that determination only if the record compels a contrary conclusion to the exclusion of any other inference." Kelley v. Me. Pub. Emps. Ret. Sys., 2009 ME 27, ¶ 16, 967 A.2d 676 (citation omitted). The reviewing court may not "substitute its judgment for that of the agency on questions of fact" and may only affirm the decision, remand for further ...