Minnesota Supreme Court Rules Workers Comp Law Does Not Block Discrimination Suit

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled yesterday that workers’ compensation exclusivity does not bar a firefighter’s suit for disability discrimination. If you are not an attorney, that sentence probably does not make a whole heck of a lot of sense. However, if you read along let me explain the importance of the ruling.

Firefighter Keith Daniel injured his right ankle while working for the Minneapolis Fire Department in August, 2014. His doctor prescribed “tennis shoes with arch support + high rescue boot high ankle” to reduce pain and improve ankle stability. The injury was treated as a line of duty workers’ comp claim.

In May, 2015 a deputy chief ordered Daniel to stop wearing the prescription shoes, and instead wear regulation uniform shoes. Two months later Daniel reinjured his ankle dismounting from the apparatus, and in the process injured his shoulder. Thereafter he was placed on light-duty and again ordered to wear regulation uniform shoes.

Daniel expressed concern about the risk of another injury if not allowed to wear his prescription shoes, prompting the department to place him on leave. He was told he could not return to work until he could wear regulation shoes.

Daniel filed suit under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act. According to the decision:

  • He claims that the City violated the human rights act by not allowing him to wear doctor-prescribed tennis shoes inside the station house, which, he alleges, was a reasonable accommodation.
  • He also maintains that the City retaliated against him for seeking an accommodation.
  • Daniel further asserts that the City violated the workers’ compensation act because the Department threatened to terminate his workers’ compensation benefits if he complied with his doctor’s prescription.
  • In June 2016, Daniel settled his workers’ compensation claims for about $125,000. The settlement agreement identified and covered specific work-related, physical injuries that Daniel sustained between 2001 and 2015, including his ankle injuries.
  • The City moved for summary judgment on the remaining claims … arguing… that the exclusivity provision of the workers’ compensation act bars Daniel’s claims under the human rights act.
  • The district court [denied the city’s motion, and the city appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals]
  • The court of appeals agreed [with the city, ruling the workers’ comp exclusivity blocked Daniel’s] … human rights act claims.

Daniel then appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. At issue is whether the benefits provided under workers’ comp are the exclusive remedy for an injured firefighter against a fire department, when the department is accused of employment discrimination over the same injury.

In its simplest terms, the workers’ comp exclusivity principle prohibits an injured worker from suing his/her employer for injuries covered by workers’ comp. It is a foundational principle in workers’ comp law without which the concept of workers’ comp could not have gained the acceptance of both labor and management. An injured employee receives no-fault entitlement to workers comp benefits (or said a different way the employer is strictly liable for work-related injuries), and in turn the employer receives de-facto immunity protection from lawsuits arising out of those injuries.

The challenge that the Daniel case brings up is: if an employer violates a discrimination law while administering a workers’ comp related injury, does exclusivity serve to block the discrimination suit? The court of appeals concluded that it does.

Fortunately for Daniel, the Minnesota Supreme Court said it does not. As explained by the court:

  • The exclusivity provision under the workers’ compensation act states that an employer’s liability under the act displaces “any other liability . . . on account of such injury.”
  • Whether the exclusivity provision bars claims under the human rights act therefore depends on the meaning of “such injury.”
  • Employer liability under the workers’ compensation act turns on the exact nature and cause of the injury because the workers’ compensation scheme was meant to replace the tort system of fault-based adjudication for workplace injury claims, with a system of strict liability that ensured that injured workers would receive expedient relief.
  • Although the workers’ compensation act makes employers strictly liable for a personal injury encompassed by the act, the act also limits an employer’s liability for a covered “personal injury” to statutory compensation that includes lost wages and reimbursement for medical expenses and treatments.
  • Unlike the workers’ compensation act, the human rights act is a civil rights law that protects employees from unlawful employment discrimination.
  • In this remedial act, the Legislature instructed courts to “liberally” construe the act’s provisions to ensure that the act would secure the right to be free from discrimination.
  • Daniel asserts that the City’s alleged discriminatory response to his disability not only prevented him from working, but violated his civil rights by harming his dignity and self-respect as a disabled employee.
  • These human rights act claims focus solely on the employer’s allegedly intentional conduct in responding to Daniel’s disability and the alleged injuries that flow from that response. They fit easily within the human rights act.
  • Employers cannot, based on an employee’s membership in a protected class, discharge an employee or discriminate against an employee regarding the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.
  • 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.
  • If an employer commits an unfair employment practice against a disabled employee, that employer has, by law, discriminated against that employee in violation of the act, and the employee can sue the employer for that discrimination.
  • Accordingly, reading the plain language of each statute, we conclude that the Legislature intended claims under the two exclusive acts to coexist.
  • The human rights act exists to protect an employee’s civil rights; it provides the exclusive remedy for discrimination injuries caused by any employer conduct that the statute defines as “unfair.”
  • The workers’ compensation act, by contrast, provides the exclusive remedy for financial and medical losses arising from a work-related “personal injury.”
  • Stated differently, even if injuries giving rise to claims under each act arose in the workplace, the acts hold employers liable for different types of injuries and provide different remedies.
  • 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.

Here is a copy of the decision: Daniel v. City of Minneapolis_ 2019 Minn. LEXIS 92

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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