Minnesota Supreme Court Expands Employers' Potential Liability For Employment Discrimination Claims
On February 27, 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued an opinion that greatly expands an employer’s potential liability to employees who are injured within the course and scope of their employment. In Daniel v. City of Minneapolis, ---N.W.2d---, No. A17-0141, 2019 WL 946364 (Minn. Feb. 27, 2019), the court held the exclusivity provision of the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, Minn. Stat. § 176.031, does not bar an employee from also asserting a claim for workplace discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 363A.01-.44. In reaching its decision, the court expressly overruled Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., 447 N.W.2d 180 (Minn. 1989), a decision which had stood for 30 years.
The plaintiff in Daniel was a City of Minneapolis firefighter who injured his ankle while performing rescue duties. Treatment of the injury included physician-prescribed tennis shoes to reduce pain and improve ankle stability. The City contended Daniel’s tennis shoes did not comply with the fire department’s uniform policy, and conditioned Daniel’s return to work on his agreeing to wear a policy-compliant shoe. Unable to reach an agreement on Daniel’s footwear, Daniel sued the City under the workers’ compensation act and the human rights act. Daniel alleged his ankle injury was compensable under the workers’ compensation act and that the City discriminated against him by failing to make the reasonable accommodation of allowing him to wear the physician-prescribed shoes, thus triggering liability under the human rights act.
The issue in Daniel was whether the exclusivity provision in the workers’ compensation act bars claims under the human rights act. The workers’ compensation act states that an employer’s liability displaces “any other liability . . . on account of such injury.” Minn. Stat. § 176.031. The human rights act states “as to acts declared unfair by [the human rights act], the procedure herein provided shall, while pending, be exclusive.” Minn. Stat. § 363A.04. Whether the workers’ compensation act bars claims under the human rights act therefore depended on whether the “injury” contemplated in the workers’ compensation act encompassed the “acts declared to be unfair” in the human rights act.
30 years ago, in Karst, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a claim of disability discrimination was not “separate and distinct” from the employee’s claim for benefits owed under the workers’ compensation act. Thus, under Karst, a plaintiff who was injured during the course and scope of their employment could not bring a claim under the human rights act. Expressly overruling Karst, the Daniel court held that an employee can pursue claims under each act because each act provides a distinct cause of action that redresses a discrete type of injury to the employee.
After Daniel, an employer is no longer shielded from claims of employment discrimination that arise out of workplace injuries. Employers, and their insurers, should therefore give careful consideration to the potential liability for employment discrimination claims whenever an employee is injured on the job.