Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Sanchez v. Dahlke Trailer Sales, Inc.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

June 28, 2017

Anibal Sanchez, Respondent,
v.
Dahlke Trailer Sales, Inc., Appellant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Joshua A. Newville, Madia Law LLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Todd L. Nissen, Drawe & Maland, Edina, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Justin D. Cummins, Cummins & Cummins, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Employee Lawyers Association of the Upper Midwest.

          Jenny M. Helling, Emma R. Denny, Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota;

          Brian 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 Association-Minnesota Chapter.

          Chutich, J. Dissenting, Anderson, J., Gildea, C.J., Stras, J.

         SYLLABUS

         1. 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.

         2. The employee raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim.

         3. 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.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, Justice.

         Respondent 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.

         FACTS

         The 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.

         Sanchez 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.[1] 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.

         On 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.

         Sanchez 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.

         During 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."

         About 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.

         Sanchez 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.

         Sanchez brought suit in Anoka County District Court, raising a claim under the workers' compensation antiretaliation statute.[2] 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 workers.

         The 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.

         ANALYSIS

         The 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.

         Minnesota 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.[3] Dahlke also argues that, even if it is not entitled to summary judgment, federal immigration law preempts Sanchez's claim.

         I.

         The 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.

         The 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)).

         The 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").

         These 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.[4] Rather, an employer discharges an employee when the employer ends the employment relationship between them with no intention to resume it.

         The 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 discharge.[5]

         Dahlke 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 documentation.

         But, 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.[6]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 permanent.[7]

         The 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.

         In the 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 ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.