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142246 - Nason v MSERS

Michael Nason,
Karl P. Numinenq
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Marquette – Solka, T.)
State Employees’ Retirement System,
Kyle Patrick McLaughlin


​At the time of his injury, Michael Nason was a 43-year-old prison guard with the Michigan Department of Corrections, a position he had held since 1989. His job duties, maintaining custody and security inside the Marquette Branch Prison, included escorting prisoners, climbing stairs, and being on his feet for six and a half to eight hours per day. While vacationing in Tobago, Nason was hit from behind by a 15-foot wave, which picked him up and drove his heel into the hard-packed sand, shattering his right heel bone. He took a disability leave from work and underwent surgery. Nason then filed an application for non-duty disability retirement under MCL 38.24. That statute allows a member of the State Employees’ Retirement System to retire if, among other things, that person becomes “totally incapacitated for duty because of a personal injury or disease that is not the natural and proximate result of the member’s performance of duty,” and a medical advisor certifies that the member is “mentally or physically totally incapacitated for further performance of his duty . . . .”

The Office of Retirement Services denied Nason’s application; he requested an evidentiary hearing in order to appeal that determination. At the hearing, Nason testified that he could not run or use stairs, so he would not have the ability to respond to an incident in the prison. He stated that he was told that his injury was permanent and that he would be unable to return to work as a corrections officer. As of the date of the hearing, he was continuing to look for work. Nason supported his position with testimony from the orthopedic surgeon who performed his surgery. But the State Employees’ Retirement System argued, relying on Knauss v State Employees’ Retirement System, 143 Mich App 644 (1985), that Nason had not shown that he was unable to engage in employment reasonably related to his past experience and training because of a disability that is likely to be permanent. The State Employees’ Retirement Board denied Nason’s application for benefits, over a hearing officer’s recommendation to the contrary, based on Nason’s ability to perform other jobs within the experience and training he received before his current job.

Nason appealed to circuit court, arguing both that MCL 38.24 did not preclude benefits simply because he might be able to work in a job other than his current position and that, in this case, the prison guard job was the only position within his qualifications and training. The circuit court agreed, and ruled that the State Employees’ Retirement Board erred when it concluded that Nason was not entitled to a non-duty disability retirement.

SERS sought review in the Court of Appeals, which ruled in Nason’s favor in a published opinion. The Court of Appeals held that the word “duty” in MCL 38.24 relates solely to the state job from which a SERS member seeks non-duty disability retirement. Accordingly, the appeals court ruled, the plain language of MCL 38.24 only allows consideration of whether a member can perform the state job from which he seeks to retire, not other jobs for which he might have experience and training. Because it was unclear whether the State Employees’ Retirement Board found that Nason was totally incapacitated from returning to his job as a corrections officer, the Court of Appeals vacated the circuit court’s order and remanded the case to the State Employees’ Retirement Board so it could address that issue. SERS appeals.