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Workers’ comp doesn’t preclude discrimination claim

By Kathryn Mrkonich Wilson and Emily McNee

 Special to Minnesota Lawyer

Kathryn Mrkonich Wilson

Kathryn Mrkonich Wilson

The Minnesota Supreme Court in Daniel v. City of Minneapolis overruled itself, and 30 years of precedent, by holding the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provision does not bar disability discrimination claims for the same injury. A summary of the facts of the case follows, along with takeaways for employers.

The Daniel case

The plaintiff injured his ankle while working as a firefighter for the Minneapolis Fire Department. After his injury, he received a prescription for supportive tennis shoes to reduce pain and improve ankle stability. The plaintiff sought and was granted workers’ compensation benefits to pay for his prescription shoes and lost wages.

Emily McNee

Emily McNee

He wore the shoes for several weeks until the Deputy Chief told him he could no longer do so because they did not comply with the Fire Department’s policy for “station shoes.” Two months later, the plaintiff reinjured his ankle and then injured his shoulder. He was placed on light duty status, but was not permitted to wear his prescribed tennis shoes. The plaintiff claimed that his not being able to wear the shoes meant the light duty position was outside of his restrictions, and he was placed on leave. Despite numerous discussions during his leave to attempt to find a shoe that would comply with the Fire Department’s policy and his prescription, the plaintiff and his employer were unable to find a mutually agreeable solution.

The plaintiff then brought a claim of discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), alleging the city discriminated against him by failing to accommodate his disability and retaliated against him for seeking an accommodation.

The city moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the exclusivity provision in the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). The Hennepin County District Court denied summary judgment, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted review on an interlocutory appeal.

Supreme Court decision

In an opinion written by Justice Margaret Chutich, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that an employee can pursue claims under both the WCA and MHRA, reasoning that each cause of action redresses a different and discrete type of injury. In so holding, the court overruled its longstanding precedent established in Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., 447 N.W.2d 180 (Minn. 1989).  The Karst court had held the WCA was the exclusive remedy for claims made regarding workplace injuries, based on the statutory language in the WCA. In overruling Karst, the court rationalized that Karst focused on whether the employee had a remedy for a workplace injury, without considering the nature of the injury. The court held that a discrimination claim addresses different harms than workers’ compensation law: loss of dignity versus personal injuries, and that the legislature therefore intended claims under the two acts to coexist.  As the dissent noted, the WCA exclusivity provision has been part of Minnesota workers’ compensation law since 1913. Further, the Minnesota legislature could have amended the WCA to remove or alter the exclusivity provision, but chose not to do so.

There are some carve-outs in the Daniel ruling that favor employers. First, the court noted that the WCA exclusivity provision could preclude other types of claims for physical or mental impairments resulting from the stress of workplace discrimination. For example, employees who claim physical injury caused by discrimination as a component of damages could have claims that are barred under the exclusivity provision of the WCA. Second, to the extent that claims brought under the MHRA and the WCA give rise to duplicative liability, the court held that the employee cannot receive double recovery for the same harm.

Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented, joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea; they would have the court hold that where a failure-to-accommodate claim is based on the same physical injuries that give rise to liability under the WCA, workers’ compensation liability remains exclusive. Such a holding would be more consistent with legislative intent and the plain language of the WCA.

Takeaways for employers

Although an employee has always been permitted to bring disability claims under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act regarding a workplace injury that might be covered by the WCA, the Daniel decision opens the door to potential claims under the MHRA as well. The dissenting justices raised concerns that the Daniel opinion will lead to a “proliferation of failure-to-accommodate litigation over workplace injuries.” This holding could result in a significant increase in state-law claims with allegations regarding accommodations of workplace injuries.  On the other hand, any increase in claims does not necessarily correlate to an increase in damages awards.

Kathryn Mrkonich Wilson is a shareholder in the Minneapolis office of Littler Mendelson. Emily McNee is an associate at Littler.

 

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