Thirty Years of Precedent Was Just Overruled So Expect More Discrimination Claims

The Minnesota Supreme Court just overruled 30 years of precedent that almost certainly will lead to more disability discrimination cases filed against Minnesota employers.

Minneapolis firefighter Keith Daniel injured his ankle during an on-duty rescue.  Daniel’s doctor prescribed that he wear “tennis shoes with arch support + high rescue boot high ankle” to relieve his pain and stabilize his ankle.  Daniel thereupon filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits to pay for the shoes and to cover wages lost as a result of the injury.

It’s All About the Shoes

Initially, Daniel was allowed to wear the shoes and received compensation for them (and for the lost wages as well).  However, 6-8 weeks later, the Deputy Fire Chief told Daniel that he could no longer wear the tennis shoes because they violated the Department’s policy requiring that firefighters must wear, while in the fire station “plain toe, black leather boots that do not interfere with response time.”

Soon thereafter, Daniel reinjured his ankle and then seriously injured his shoulder while climbing down from a fire truck.  Daniel was offered light duty but was still not allowed to wear his prescribed shoes.  Daniel claimed that if he could not wear the shoes, the light duty job did not meet his physical restrictions, whereupon he was placed on medical leave until his work restrictions allowed him to wear shoes that complied with the Department’s policy.

Daniel eventually sued the City under the Minnesota Human Rights Act claiming, among other things, that the City failed to reasonably accommodate him by denying him the ability to wear the prescribed shoes.  He also sued under the Workers Compensation Act but settled that claim, signing a settlement agreement that covered all of the various injuries he suffered at work, including the ankle injury for which the tennis shoes were prescribed.

Exclusive Doesn’t Actually Mean Exclusive

With the workers compensation claim behind them, the City filed a motion to dismiss the Human Rights Act claims.  They contended that dismissal was required in accordance with the 1989 Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Karst v. F.C. Hayer Company (“Karst”) which determined that the Workers Compensation law was the exclusive remedy for any claims arising out of injuries in the workplace.  This was based on language in that statute professing that in regard to workplace injuries, the Act’s remedial provisions replace any other liability “. . . on account of such injury.”

Although the trial court denied the motion to dismiss, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the case citing the controlling precedent of Karst.  They ruled that under Karst, Daniel could not seek any other type of remedy for his workplace injury except under the Workers Compensation statute.  Daniel then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed again and ruled that Daniel could pursue his discrimination claims.  In so doing, they explicitly overruled Karst because it wrongly placed the emphasis on whether the employee had a remedy for a workplace injury instead of addressing the nature of that injury.  The Daniel court explained that the Workers Compensation law was never intended to focus on all harms stemming from workplace injuries. Instead, the concept of workers compensation was an “industrial bargain” whereby traditional fault-based litigation was replaced with a no-fault system designed to provide quicker relief to workers.  As such, the workers compensation law was intended to provide redress only for the actual personal injuries  – physical and mental – that an employee endured as a result of getting hurt at work.

Discrimination is More Than a Personal Injury

A discrimination claim, however, addresses very different sorts of harms, most notably the loss of dignity and self-worth occasioned by intentional acts with wrongful motives.  They also seek to vindicate and enforce the civil rights of the general public – the right of individuals and society as a whole to be free from the harmful effects of discrimination.  The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that these are not the types of injuries upon which the legislature would have sought to impose limitations.

The Supreme Court therefore overruled Karst and held that Daniel’s discrimination claims are not barred by the exclusive-remedy provision of the workers’ compensation statute. To rule otherwise, they said, would “thwart the Legislature’s intent to protect the civil rights of disabled employees under the Human Rights Act”.

The Court did offer one concession to employers by ruling that to the extent that the workers compensation and discrimination claims are both filed, the employee is not entitled to double recovery for the same harm.  Therefore, for example, an award of back pay under the Human Rights Act would preclude a similar award under the Workers Compensation Act.

Bottom Line

Since disability discrimination claims regarding workplace injuries could always be brought under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), why is this decision is so troubling?  For one thing, the damages provisions under the Minnesota Human Rights Act are more extensive than they are under federal law so an employee’s ability to bring a concurrent state law claim raises the stakes substantially.  In addition, the state law has a slightly longer filing period so more claims can get filed.

Finally, the ADA applies only to employers with 15 or more employees while the state law applies to all employers.  Therefore, those that can least afford more liability are affected most dramatically by this ruling.