Claim Under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act Not Barred by Exclusive Remedy Rule

In a split decision, the Supreme Court of Minnesota held that an employee, who sustained a work-related injury and who was receiving workers’ compensation benefits, may proceed against his employer under the state’s Human Rights Act (“HRA”) for discrimination against him by allegedly failing to accommodate his disability and retaliating against him for seeking an accommodation [Daniel v. City of Minneapolis, 2019 Minn. LEXIS 92 (Feb. 27, 2019). The action is not barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”).

Background

Daniel worked as a firefighter for the Minneapolis Fire Department for 14 years. During his employment years, Daniel suffered numerous work-related injuries, including many injuries to his right ankle and to his shoulders. His complaint focuses on the Department’s response to his request for a footwear accommodation.

Following an August 2014 work-related injury to his right ankle, his doctor gave him a for supportive “tennis shoes with arch support + high rescue boot high ankle” to reduce pain and improve ankle stability. When he sought reimbursement for the shoes, the City sought an IME. The IME doctor concluded that Daniel should wear flat shoes (i.e., one’s without a specified heel), but cleared his to work without other restrictions.

City Initially Agreed and Paid for Shoes

After a captain told Daniel he could do so, Daniel purchased a pair of black tennis shoes and fitted them with special inserts. The City compensated Daniel for the shoes, orthotic inserts, supportive rescue boots, and lost wages. Daniel then wore the tennis shoes at the station house for about 6 to 8 weeks, until May 2015, when the Deputy Chief told him that he could no longer wear them because they did not comply with the Department’s policy for station shoes. Two months later, Daniel reinsured his ankle and soon thereafter seriously injured his shoulder when he lost his footing climbing down from a fire truck.

Civil Action for Violation of HRA and WCA

Daniel subsequently sued the City, asserting claims under the HRA [Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44 (2018)], and the WCA [Minn. Stat. §§ 176.001-.862 (2018)]. He claimed that the City violated the HRA by not allowing him to wear doctor-prescribed tennis shoes inside the station house, which, he alleged, was a reasonable accommodation. He also maintained that the City retaliated against him for seeking an accommodation in violation of the WCA.

The City moved for summary judgment arguing in part that the exclusivity provision of the WCA barred Daniel’s claims under the HRA. The trial court determined that the claims under the HRA were not barred because the WCA did not provide a remedy for the discrimination claims that Daniel alleged under that act. The court also said factual disputes precluded summary judgment on Daniel’s claims. The court of appeals reversed.

Divided Supreme Court

Overruling an earlier decision, Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., 447 N.W.2d 180 (Minn. 1989), the divided Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The majority held that an employee could pursue claims under both the WCA and the HRA because each provided a different, distinct cause of action that redressed a discrete type of injury to an employee. The HRA held employers liable for discrimination, a public harm that violates a person’s civil rights and self-worth.

The majority said the HRA afforded broad relief, including equitable, compensatory, punitive, and public remedies for unlawful workplace discrimination. By contrast, the WCA held employers liable for work-related, personal injuries; it required employers to pay monetary compensation to employees to help injured employees recover physically and financially. The majority stressed that the dissenting judge had conflated two distinct injuries— a work-related physical injury and the injury resulting from disability discrimination.

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