of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
A. Newville, Madia Law LLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for
L. Nissen, Drawe & Maland, Edina, Minnesota, for
D. Cummins, Cummins & Cummins, LLP, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, for amicus curiae Employee Lawyers Association of
the Upper Midwest.
M. Helling, Emma R. Denny, Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP,
T. Rochel, Douglas A. Micko, Teske Micko Katz Kitzer &
Rochel, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Frances E. Baillon,
Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta, LLP, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, for amicus curiae National Employment Lawyers
Chutich, J. Dissenting, Anderson, J., Gildea, C.J., Stras, J.
Under the Minnesota workers' compensation antiretaliation
statute, Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1 (2016), an
employer discharges an employee when the employer ends the
employment relationship with no intention to resume it.
employee raised a genuine issue of material fact as to
whether he was discharged in retaliation for filing a
workers' compensation claim.
Federal immigration law does not preempt an undocumented
worker's claim under section 176.82, subdivision 1, that
his employer discharged him in retaliation for seeking
workers' compensation benefits.
Anibal Sanchez sued appellant Dahlke Trailer Sales, Inc.
(Dahlke) under the antiretaliation provision of the Minnesota
workers' compensation statute. Minn. Stat. § 176.82,
subd. 1 (2016). The district court granted summary judgment
to Dahlke, concluding that Sanchez had not raised a genuine
issue of material fact about whether Dahlke discharged him
because he sought workers' compensation benefits. The
court of appeals reversed. Sanchez v. Dahlke Trailer
Sales, Inc., No. A15-1183, 2016 WL 3129352 (Minn.App.
June 6, 2016). Before this court, Dahlke asserts that the
court of appeals unduly expanded the scope of the
workers' compensation antiretaliation statute and that
Sanchez's claim is preempted by federal immigration law.
We affirm the court of appeals. We hold that Sanchez raised a
genuine issue of material fact as to whether Dahlke
discharged him and as to whether the discharge was motivated
by Sanchez seeking workers' compensation benefits. We
further hold that federal immigration law does not preempt
Sanchez's claim. Accordingly, we remand to the district
court for further proceedings.
summary judgment standard requires us to view the facts in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Sanchez.
State Farm Fire & Cas. v. Aquila Inc., 718
N.W.2d 879, 883 (Minn. 2006). Anibal Sanchez was born in
Mexico. He entered the United States in 1998, with a tourist
visa, and he has lived here without documentation since the
visa expired. Sanchez bought a false social security number
with the intention to apply for jobs. He presented the false
social security number to Dahlke when he was hired in early
2005. Sanchez worked for Dahlke as a body shop assistant for
about eight years, until December 20, 2013.
alleged that his managers at Dahlke knew for the majority of
his employment that he was not authorized to work in the
United States. He testified that people at Dahlke started to
ask him about his "legal situation" about two years
after he was hired. He described several instances in which
managers at Dahlke made statements about his undocumented
status. Sanchez also alleged that Dahlke received
annual notices from the Social Security Administration,
stating that the social security number that Sanchez provided
did not match his name.
September 23, 2013, Sanchez injured himself while operating a
sandblaster at work. Dahlke sent him to the hospital and made
a first report of injury to its workers' compensation
insurance carrier. Sanchez missed work and incurred medical
expenses. He testified that, after he went back to work, he
was told that he had to submit copies of his medical bills
before he could receive lost-wages benefits.
hired a lawyer to give him advice about the process. He
testified that when he told Doug Smithers, a part-owner and
service manager at Dahlke, that he had a lawyer, Smithers
responded that he hated lawyers and said, "[T]he bridge
between us [is] broken." Through his lawyer, Sanchez
filed a workers' compensation claim petition on November
6, 2013. That claim has since settled.
a deposition about his workers' compensation claim on
December 11, 2013, Dahlke's lawyer asked Sanchez whether
he was legally authorized to work in the United States.
Sanchez responded that he was not. One or two days later,
when he returned to Dahlke, Doug Smithers asked to see
Sanchez's social security card and asked Sanchez whether
he was "illegal." Sanchez responded: "Douglas,
you know that." Sanchez testified that Smithers told him
that he could not work for Dahlke anymore "because of
[his] legal situation."
one week later, Sanchez and two part-owners, Brian Dahlke and
Doug Smithers, signed a letter stating:
Because you voluntarily told us that the social security card
documentation you provided us was not good and that you are
not eligible to work in the United States at this time, we
are sending you home on an unpaid leave of absence. Once you
provide us with legitimate paperwork showing that you can
legally work in the United States, you can come back to work
at Dahlke Trailer Sales.
later testified that he read the letter "without being
aware of what [he] was signing." He also testified that
he would "absolutely" go back to work at Dahlke if
he could get legal authorization. Sanchez returned to Dahlke
only once, to pick up his tools.
brought suit in Anoka County District Court, raising a claim
under the workers' compensation antiretaliation
statute. Minn. Stat. § 176.82 (2016). Dahlke
moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted
its motion. Because Sanchez acknowledged that he could return
to Dahlke if he became legally authorized to work, the
district court found as a matter of law that his unpaid leave
was a result of his immigration status, not his workers'
compensation claim. Additionally, although acknowledging that
"placing Plaintiff on unpaid leave might seem as if
Dahlke was effectively firing Plaintiff, " the court
reasoned that Dahlke was simply complying with federal law
prohibiting employers from knowingly employing undocumented
court of appeals reversed. Sanchez v. Dahlke Trailer
Sales, Inc., No. A15-1183, 2016 WL 3129352, at *3
(Minn.App. June 6, 2016). The court held that undocumented
workers are protected by the antiretaliation provision of the
workers' compensation law. Id. at *2 (citing
Correa v. Waymouth Farms, Inc., 664 N.W.2d 324, 328
(Minn. 2003)). The court of appeals also held that Sanchez
had raised a genuine issue of material fact on whether he had
established a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge.
Id. at *2-3. The court of appeals concluded that
genuine issues of material fact existed regarding
Sanchez's claim "that must be further developed and
determined in the first instance by the district court,
" and remanded the case to the district court for
further proceedings. Id. at *4. We granted
Dahlke's petition for review.
district court may grant summary judgment if "there is
no genuine issue as to any material fact" so that one
party is "entitled to a judgment as a matter of
law." Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. Our court reviews the
district court's decision to grant summary judgment de
novo. Stringer v. Minn. Vikings Football Club, LLC,
705 N.W.2d 746, 754 (Minn. 2005). We consider two questions:
"whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, and
whether an error in the application of the law
occurred." Fairview Hosp. & Health Care Servs.
v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 535 N.W.2d 337,
341 (Minn. 1995). Again, the evidence must be viewed in the
light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Sanchez. See
Aquila Inc., 718 N.W.2d at 883.
Statutes section 176.82, subdivision 1, prohibits an employer
from "discharging . . . an employee for seeking
workers' compensation benefits." Dahlke is entitled
to summary judgment, then, if it establishes that no genuine
dispute exists as to the material facts: (1) whether Dahlke
discharged Sanchez within the meaning of the statute, and (2)
whether Dahlke did so in retaliation for Sanchez seeking
workers' compensation benefits. Dahlke also argues that,
even if it is not entitled to summary judgment, federal
immigration law preempts Sanchez's claim.
court of appeals determined that a genuine issue of material
fact existed as to whether Dahlke subjected Sanchez to an
"adverse employment action" because his unpaid
leave was a "material change in the terms or
conditions" of his employment. Sanchez, 2016 WL
3129352, at *3 (quoting Leiendecker v. Asian Women United
of Minn., 731 N.W.2d 836, 842 (Minn.App. 2007), rev.
denied (Minn. Aug. 7, 2007)). But Minnesota Statutes
section 176.82, subdivision 1, prohibits only a narrow range
of conduct: discharge, threatened discharge, and intentional
obstruction of benefits. The question here is whether Dahlke
discharged Sanchez. Dahlke argues that placing Sanchez on
unpaid leave until he can provide legitimate work documents
does not qualify as a discharge.
workers' compensation statute does not define
"discharge" or "discharging."
See Minn. Stat. §§ 176.001-.862 (2016). To
decide whether a genuine issue of material fact exists
concerning whether Sanchez was discharged, we must first
determine the word's meaning within the workers'
compensation antiretaliation statute. When interpreting a
statute, "we give words and phrases their plain and
ordinary meaning." Premier Bank v. Becker Dev.,
LLC, 785 N.W.2d 753, 759 (Minn. 2010) (citing Minn.
Stat. § 645.08 (2016)).
American Heritage Dictionary defines "discharge,
" in part, as "[t]o release, as from confinement,
care, or duty" or "[t]o remove from office or
employment." The American Heritage Dictionary of the
English Language 514 (5th ed. 2011); see also
Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the
English Language 644 (2002) (defining "discharge,
" in part, as "to dismiss from employment:
terminate the employment of, " or "to end formally
the service of: release from duty"). Interpreting the
term in an employment contract, our court has defined
"discharge" as "the termination of employment
at the will of the employer with prejudice."
Anderson v. Twin City Rapid Transit Co., 84 N.W.2d
593, 598-99 (Minn. 1957). In Anderson, we concluded
that a layoff was not a discharge because it was only
temporary. Id. at 599; see also Neid v.
Tassie's Bakery, 17 N.W.2d 357, 358 (Minn. 1945)
(interpreting "discharge" in an employment contract
and finding that a "temporary cessation of operations
was not a discharge").
sources show that the plain and ordinary meaning of discharge
includes an aspect of permanence. See Neid, 17
N.W.2d at 358 ("A discharge presumptively means that the
employer no longer needs or desires the employee's
services; that he is done with him; and that all contract
relations between them are at an end."); see
also Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 5 (2016)
(defining discharge in the unemployment compensation context
as occurring "when any words or actions by an employer
would lead a reasonable employee to believe that the employer
will no longer allow the employee to work for the employer in
any capacity"). This determination does not mean that a
revival of the employment relationship must be impossible or
inconceivable-any employer that discharges an employee could
conceivably hire him back, and this possibility would not
change the nature of the initial discharge. Rather, an
employer discharges an employee when the employer ends the
employment relationship between them with no intention to
actual intent of the employer is key in deciding whether a
discharge occurred, because the employer is the party with
the greatest control over the employment relationship. The
employer can make the ultimate decision whether to hire the
person back-that is, whether the termination is with
prejudice. If an employer places an employee on a
"temporary" leave, but intends that the leave
should never end, then the employer is really discharging the
employee. The focus on the employer's actual intent
prevents employers from avoiding a retaliation charge by
simply attaching a different label to what is in reality a
asserts that it did not discharge Sanchez when it placed him
on unpaid leave, because Sanchez can return to his job once
he presents legal authorization to work in the United States.
As support, it points to the letter-signed by Sanchez and two
part-owners of Dahlke-stating that Sanchez "can come
back to work at Dahlke" once he provides adequate
taking the facts in the light most favorable to Sanchez,
there is reason to doubt that Dahlke ever intended to rehire
Sanchez, regardless of any change in his work
status.Sanchez asserts that Dahlke was not
actually motivated by his immigration status because Dahlke
had known for years that he was undocumented. Sanchez's
testimony describes numerous interactions with Dahlke
managers showing that they were aware of his immigration
status long before he filed his workers' compensation
claim. Further support comes from the questionable
circumstances of Sanchez's initial deposition; Sanchez
argues that Dahlke's attorney deliberately asked him
about his immigration status-despite its limited legal
relevance to the claim for workers' compensation
benefits-to furnish Dahlke with a nondiscriminatory reason to
terminate Sanchez's employment. If Dahlke's
motivation for placing Sanchez on leave was retaliatory, it
implies that Dahlke intended the unpaid leave to be
dissent submits that "an employer's subjective
desire that an employee never return to work" is
irrelevant in the context of a contractual employment
relationship. This argument misses the point. Even if Sanchez
were to obtain legal work status, Dahlke would still have the
ultimate choice whether to re-employ him. Dahlke's
promise to rehire Sanchez once he gains legal work status did
not include mutual consideration and may not be binding. And
because the condition in the letter has not occurred, and
perhaps will never occur, the key to determining whether
Sanchez was discharged is in determining whether Dahlke
intended the leave to be permanent.
end, the question of whether Dahlke intended Sanchez's
unpaid leave to be permanent is a factual dispute, to be
resolved by a factfinder. Thus, Sanchez has raised a ...