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Court rules for firefighter in disability case

A dispute over wearing tennis shoes to work has led the Minnesota Supreme Court to create new law in the area of workers’ compensation and disability discrimination and overrule a 1989 case.

In Daniel v. City of Minneapolis, the court ruled that a firefighter injured on the job could bring claims for workers’ compensation and also for disability discrimination because the city allegedly discriminated against him by failing to accommodate his disability and retaliated against him for seeking an accommodation.

The accommodation that Daniel sought was wearing doctor-prescribed tennis shoes after incurring many injuries to his right ankle.

To hold that the exclusivity provision of the workers’ compensation act does not bar human rights claims, the court overruled its 1989 opinion in Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co. and reversed the Court of Appeals.

“To give effect to the plain language of the workers’ compensation act and the human rights act, we hold that an employee can pursue claims under each act because each act provides a distinct cause of action that redresses a discrete type of injury to an employee,” wrote Justice Margaret Chutich for the court. Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented, joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.

‘A great win’

Daniel’s attorney, Joshua Williams said on Feb. 27 when the case came down, “It’s a great win for human rights and employee rights in Minnesota.” He is also pleased that his client will “get the chance to talk to a jury” about accommodation, discrimination and retaliation.  All his claims are connected to the city’s refusal to accommodate his doctor’s recommendation about shoes, Williams said.

Williams said the city’s position is about uniformity within the department. “Everyone agrees that [Daniel wearing tennis shoes] would not have affected his response [to a fire] time. Everyone agrees that my client was a good firefighter. He was top-notch.”

Two groups appeared as amicus curiae, the Employee Lawyers Association of the Upper Midwest and the Minnesota Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

“We argued that Karst should be overturned,” said Phillip Kitzer, one of the attorneys on the brief for NELA. “Karst has been a concern of employees for many years.”

Emma Denny, an employment lawyer in Minneapolis, said, “For three decades the Karst ruling has prevented employees with disabilities from a workplace injury from pursuing their rights under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. As a result of the Daniel decision, Karst has been overruled, and disabled employees across the state may now pursue all of the remedies they are entitled to under the law.”

Not ‘station shoes’

The case went up to the Supreme Court on an interlocutory appeal after the Hennepin County District Court held, on the city’s motion for summary judgment, that the human rights claims were not barred. The city argued that the District Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the human rights act claims because the workers’ comp law barred the suit. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court.

Daniel worked as a firefighter for the Minneapolis Fire Department for 14 years and injured his right ankle many times. The doctor prescribed tennis shoes with arch support and a high ankle to reduce pain and improve ankle stability. He wore black tennis shoes for about eight weeks until the deputy chief told him he could not wear them because they were not acceptable “station shoes.” Two months after that he reinjured his ankle and then injured his shoulder when he lost his footing climbing down from a fire truck. He was not allowed to wear the tennis shoes for light duty so he was placed on leave.

Ultimately, the department informed Daniel that if he wished to receive workers’ compensation benefits for his injury and continue his employment, he would have to comply with the department’s uniform guidelines.

He then sued the city under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01–.44 and the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 176.001–.862.  He alleged that the city refused a reasonable accommodation and retaliated against him for seeking it. He took early retirement in March 2016 and settled his work comp claim for about $125,000 in June 2016.

Karst case

In Karst, the Supreme Court did not see a distinction between workers’ comp benefits for injuries and damages for disability discrimination based on the employer’s refusal to rehire him. The city argued that Karst controls and must be followed per stare decisis because the Legislature did not amend either statute after the opinion.

Daniel asked the court to overrule Karst and hold that the two exclusivity provisions do not conflict. He contended that he can pursue his claims under the human rights act because they relate to discrimination, an injury that is separate and distinct from a workplace injury that may precede the discrimination.

The court determined that Karst is contrary to the plain language of the workers’ compensation act and the human rights act. It examined the meaning of “such injury” in the statute, which says that that an employer’s liability under the act displaces any other liability on account of such injury. Karst, in contrast, focused on the remedy to the employee.

The court determined that “such injury” refers to the discrete categories of “personal injury.” Daniel was compensated with workers’ comp benefits for his personal injury that arose out of the course of his employment.

But his injury under the human rights act is different, said the court. “His claims arise under the human rights act’s disability-accommodation requirement, which makes it unlawful for an employer to fail ‘to make reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified disabled person’ unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an ‘undue hardship’ on the employer,” the court said. The human rights act is the exclusive remedy for employment discrimination as a civil rights violation.

“Just as an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of race or gender, an employer cannot refuse to make reasonable accommodations ‘to the known disability of a qualified disabled person,’ unless doing so would be an undue hardship to that employer. It is immaterial that Daniel’s disability resulted from an earlier workplace injury,” the court said.

Chutich continued, “More importantly, the damage to Daniel’s individual dignity, as well as the loss of a fair employment opportunity because of the alleged failure to accommodate his physical disability, are alleged injuries distinct from the ankle injury suffered by Daniel many months before the dispute over accommodation arose.”

Under the plain language of the statute, the human rights act protects employees from an employer’s discriminatory response to a disability, Chutich continued.

The court also determined that the Legislature intended claims under the two acts to coexist. “Given that the exclusionary provisions of the workers’ compensation act and the human rights act do not extend to the same types of injuries, we find no conflict in allowing Daniel to seek compensation for conduct by the City that allegedly injured his civil rights simply because he also sought compensation for personal injuries that he suffered in the course of his employment,” said the court.

The court recognized that it is possible that the damages for a discrimination claim and payments for a workers’ compensation injury could overlap in some cases. The employee cannot receive double recovery for the same harm, it said. Trial courts are more than capable of preventing such an outcome, Chutich noted.

Troubling consequences

The dissent said the question is whether or not Daniel’s failure to accommodate claim is “on account of” the same physical injuries that gave rise to the city’s worker’s compensation liability, and since it is, the city’s work comp liability is exclusive.

“In concluding otherwise, the court undermines the foundational exclusivity principle on which our workers’ compensation system rests, ignores the plain statutory language of the exclusivity provision, and overrules our decision in Karst … without addressing the principles upon which it stands.” Anderson wrote.

He also warned that the court “fails to appreciate the troubling consequences of its decision. The court’s reasoning undermines workers’ compensation exclusivity, implicates double-recovery by employees, and likely will result in a proliferation of failure-to-accommodate litigation over workplace injuries.”

Anderson continued, “If the Legislature really intended claims under the two exclusive statutes to coexist (as the court insists), there is little doubt which statute an employee seeking accommodation will choose, when a claim under the human rights act allows treble actual damages, pain and suffering damages, punitive damages, and opportunities for recovery of attorney fees.”

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