Employment lawyers are buzzing about a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that liberalized workers’ compensation law to permit related discrimination suits under the Minnesota Human Rights Act that were barred by the court’s ruling 30 years ago. 

Former Minneapolis firefighter Keith Daniel, 57, forced into early retirement in 2016 by job-related injuries, settled a workers’compensation claim for $125,000.

In a 5-2 decision in late February, the Supreme Court ruled that Daniel can return to Hennepin County District Court to pursue a claim that was rejected earlier under the Human Rights Act because fire department management allegedly discriminated against him by refusing to allow him to wear doctor-prescribed tennis shoes that relieved his condition around the station house.

The brass insisted that he wear the standard boots that exacerbated his ankle injury.

Daniel alleged discrimination because the 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.

“His claims arise under the human rights act’s disability-accommodation requirement, which makes it unlawful for an employer to fail to make a 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,” Justice Margaret Chutich wrote in the decision. “Unlike the workers’ compensation act, the human rights act is a civil rights law that protects employees from unlawful employment discrimination.”

The Minnesota chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the city against Daniel.

And Justice G. Barry Anderson, joined in a dissent by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, wrote that the majority decision “undermines” Minnesota workers’-comp law and wrongly overrules the 30-year-old “Karst” decision that had cemented what had been legal precedent for generations — and bars effectively collecting twice on the same injury.

“Because Daniel’s failure-to-accommodate claim is ‘on account of’ the same physical injuries that gave rise to the city’s worker compensation liabilities, I would hold that the city’s worker compensation liability is exclusive,” Anderson wrote. “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.”

Continuing, Anderson said the ruling “implicates double-recovery by employees.

“Almost any work-related injury carries with it the seeds of a failure-to-accommodate claim and as just seen both the human rights act and the worker compensation act provide a potential remedy. In the past, we have not allowed an injured employee to proceed with claims that duplicate the remedies.”

Emma Denny, employment lawyer with Minneapolis-based Halunen Law, called the decision “quite significant” and estimated that “this means hundreds more employees every year will be able to bring disability discrimination claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act in addition to pursuing remedies under the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

Joshua Williams, Daniel’s attorney said the decision means Minnesota employers no longer can discriminate against “protected class” employees due to injury.

“There is no place in the state for judicially authorized employment discrimination … so this is a good outcome for all Minnesotans,” Williams said.

Employment lawyer Brian Rochel, who wrote a brief on behalf of Minnesota lawyers who represent injured workers, said the decision is important because it recognized discrimination against Daniel because he wanted to stay on his job, albeit with an accommodation that would help him recover fully.

“We see this a lot where somebody asks for an accommodation, for carpal tunnel or other condition and says, ‘I can do A, B and C but not D & E,’ ” Rochel said. “I would venture … that this may cover 30 to 50 percent of worker compensation claims.

“The law says employers must make a reasonable effort … under the Human Rights Act … to accommodate the disability. An employer just can’t dislike disabled people and you’re fired. The Karst decision said you didn’t have a [human rights] claim. The Supreme Court in Daniel said that’s nonsensical. This could affect thousands of people.”

Susan Segal, the Minneapolis city attorney, doubts the floodgates will open.

She notes there can be “no double recovery” for a workers’-comp case that also involves a human rights claim. The aggrieved party also must prove there was discrimination to win a separate human rights case and any related award.

“It does open the door to injured employees who have work-related injuries to receive worker comp benefits, and also the option to also pursue a disability-discrimination claim if the facts warrant under state human rights law,” she acknowledged.

Daniel is heading back to a Hennepin courtroom to make that case.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.