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Daniel v. City of Minneapolis

Supreme Court of Minnesota

February 27, 2019

Keith Daniel, Appellant,
v.
City of Minneapolis, Respondent.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Joshua R. Williams, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Susan L. Segal, Minneapolis City Attorney, Sarah McLaren, Sharda Enslin, Assistant City Attorneys, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Leslie L. Lienemann, Culbreth & Lienemann, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Employee Lawyers Association of the Upper Midwest.

          Brian T. Rochel, Phillip M. Kitzer, Teske, Katz, Kitzer & Rochel, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Frances E. Baillon, Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

         SYLLABUS

         The exclusivity provision of the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act, Minnesota Statutes section 176.031 (2018), does not bar claims for disability discrimination brought under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minnesota Statutes sections 363A.01-.44 (2018).

         Reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, JUSTICE.

         In this interlocutory appeal, we consider whether an employee-who was injured while working and received workers' compensation benefits-may bring claims for disability discrimination against his employer under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Appellant Keith Daniel, a firefighter for the Minneapolis Fire Department ("Department"), sued respondent City of Minneapolis ("City"), alleging that, while he was working for the Department, the City discriminated against him by failing to accommodate his disability and retaliating against him for seeking an accommodation.

         The City moved for summary judgment, arguing that Daniel's claims are barred by the exclusivity provision in the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act. The district court denied summary judgment, the court of appeals reversed, and we granted Daniel's petition for review.

         To give effect to the plain language of the workers' compensation act and the human rights act, we hold 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 an employee. The human rights act holds employers liable for discrimination, a public harm that violates a person's civil rights and self-worth; the act affords broad relief, including equitable, compensatory, punitive, and public remedies for unlawful workplace discrimination. By contrast, the workers' compensation act holds employers liable for work-related, personal injuries; it requires employers to pay monetary compensation to employees to help injured employees recover physically and financially. Therefore, for the reasons explained below, we overrule our decision in Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., 447 N.W.2d 180 (Minn. 1989), reverse the decision of the court of appeals, and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.

         FACTS

         Because this case appears before us on the City's motion for summary judgment, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to Daniel, and resolve all doubts and factual inferences against the City. See Rochester City Lines, Co. v. City of Rochester, 868 N.W.2d 655, 661 (Minn. 2015). Daniel worked as a firefighter for the Minneapolis Fire Department for 14 years. While employed, 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.

         While performing rescue duties in August 2014, Daniel injured his right ankle. After this injury, Daniel's doctor gave him a prescription for supportive "tennis shoes with arch support high rescue boot high ankle" to reduce pain and improve ankle stability.

         Daniel filed a claim petition for workers' compensation benefits to pay for the cost of the shoes and inserts prescribed by his doctor, as well as for lost wages. As part of the claim process, a doctor conducted an independent medical examination for the City. The doctor concluded that Daniel's ankle issues were "aggravated by his . . . need to walk on uneven surfaces wearing heeled shoes at work." He recommended that Daniel wear flat shoes but opined that Daniel could work full time without restrictions. The City accepted liability for Daniel's workers' compensation claim in January 2015.

         After a captain told Daniel that he could wear black tennis shoes in the station house, Daniel purchased black tennis shoes and fitted them with special inserts. The City compensated Daniel for the black tennis 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.[1]

         Daniel asserts that wearing the tennis shoes "did not re-aggravate his ankle injury," but after he reverted to wearing station shoes, his ankle started to "swell" again and "exacerbated his pain." Two months after being told that he could not wear his prescribed tennis shoes, Daniel reinjured his ankle and soon thereafter seriously injured his shoulder when he lost his footing climbing down from a fire truck.

         The Department placed Daniel on light-duty status after the shoulder injury. While working on light-duty status, the Department did not allow Daniel to wear his prescribed tennis shoes. Because Daniel claimed that not being able to wear the prescribed shoes made the light-duty job fall outside of his physical restrictions, the Department placed him on leave. The Department told him that he could return to work if his work restrictions allowed him to wear shoes that complied with the Department's footwear policy.

         While on injury leave, Daniel and the Department engaged in "numerous" meetings to discuss a shoe that would comply with the Department's uniform policy and Daniel's footwear prescription; they never agreed on an acceptable shoe. The Department informed Daniel that if he wished to receive workers' compensation benefits for his injury and continue his employment, he would have to comply with the Department's uniform guidelines.

         Daniel then sued the City in December 2015, asserting claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44 (2018), and the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 176.001-.862 (2018). He claims that the City violated the human rights act by not allowing him to wear doctor-prescribed tennis shoes inside the station house, which, he alleges, was a reasonable accommodation. He also maintains that the City retaliated against him for seeking an accommodation.[2]

         One month after he sued the City, Daniel completed a functional-capacity examination for the City. The examination revealed that he was "not able to reach shoulder level with his left arm" and that "he could only carry 40 pounds seldom and only 20 pounds over his head seldom." These examination results prompted the City to seek early retirement benefits for Daniel.

         Daniel accepted the early retirement benefits in March 2016, ending his employment with the City. In a deposition, he stated that he could have had surgery for his shoulder injury and not retired early, but he agreed to early retirement because he was told that even if he had the surgery, "the fire department did not have a position for [him] to wear tennis shoes."

         In June 2016, Daniel settled his workers' compensation claims for about $125, 000. The settlement agreement identified and covered specific work-related, physical injuries that Daniel sustained between 2001 and 2015, including his ankle injuries.

         The City moved for summary judgment on the remaining claims 2 months later, arguing in part that the exclusivity provision of the workers' compensation act bars Daniel's claims under the human rights act. Daniel also moved for summary judgment. The district court denied both motions, concluding that (1) the claims under the human rights act were not barred because the workers' compensation act does not provide a remedy for the discrimination claims that Daniel alleged under that act, and (2) factual disputes precluded summary judgment on Daniel's claims.

         The City filed an interlocutory appeal, [3] asserting that the district court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Daniel's claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act because the exclusivity provision of the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act bars such claims.[4] The court of appeals agreed and reversed the district court's decision to deny summary judgment on the human rights act claims. Daniel v. City of Minneapolis, No. A17-0141, 2017 WL 6418220, at *5 (Minn.App. Dec. 18, 2017). The court remanded the case for the district court to address Daniel's remaining claims. Id. at *6. Daniel petitioned for review, which we granted.

         ANALYSIS

         We consider whether the district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over Daniel's claims under the human rights act. McGowan v. Our Savior's Lutheran Church, 527 N.W.2d 830, 832-34 (Minn. 1995). The court has no subject-matter jurisdiction over claims barred by the exclusivity provision of the workers' compensation act. Id. An order denying summary judgment based on subject-matter jurisdiction is immediately appealable. Id. at 833. Subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo. Nelson v. Schlener, 859 N.W.2d 288, 291 (Minn. 2015).

         In general, "unless a statute provides that its remedy is exclusive," a party may bring claims that arise out of the same set of facts under different statutes. Abraham v. Cty. of Hennepin, 639 N.W.2d 342, 346-47 (Minn. 2002). Daniel has asserted claims under two acts, both of which contain exclusivity provisions: the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The exclusivity provision in the workers' compensation act states: "The liability of an employer prescribed by this chapter is exclusive and in the place of any other liability to such employee . . . on account of such injury or death." Minn. Stat. § 176.031. Similarly, the exclusivity provision in 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.

         We previously considered the relationship between these two exclusivity provisions in Karst v. F.C. Hayer Company. There, an employee who had received workers' compensation benefits for work-related injuries brought a discrimination claim under the human rights act for the employer's refusal to rehire him. 447 N.W.2d at 182-83. We held that the exclusivity provision under the workers' compensation act barred the employee's claims for disability discrimination under the human rights act. Id. at 186.

         In reaching this conclusion, we rejected the employee's argument that he could bring claims under the human rights act because discrimination was an injury "separate and distinct" from the loss of employment. Id. at 184. We concluded, without explanation, that "[a]lthough the injuries suffered by Karst as a result of [the employer's] refusal to rehire him may be conceptually distinct from his work-related injuries, any difference is immaterial." Id.

         Instead of focusing on the "exact nature and cause of these injuries," and whether the injury from disability discrimination fell within the coverage of the workers' compensation act, we considered whether that act provided the employee a "remedy" for the employer's refusal to rehire the injured employee. Id. After determining that a remedy existed under the workers' compensation act, we noted that when that act applies, we have been unwilling to extend existing "narrow" exceptions to its exclusivity clause absent clear legislative intent. Id. at 184-85.

         Turning next to the human rights act, we acknowledged the Legislature's policy declaration to" 'secure for persons in this state, freedom from discrimination . . . [i]n employment because of . . . disability.'" Id. at 185 (quoting Minn. Stat. § 363.12, subd. 1 (1988)). We further acknowledged that the plain language of the act could reasonably be read to cover "people disabled as a result of work-related physical injuries." Id. Without first finding any ambiguity in the act's language, we reviewed the legislative history of the human rights act. Because the legislative history did not discuss the likely impact of the reasonable-accommodation provision on the workers' compensation act, we interpreted this legislative silence to mean that the "legislature did not intend to authorize virtually every injured worker who is not rehired to bring a disability discrimination action." Id.

         We further determined that because the two acts were substantially amended in the same legislative session, we could not resolve the conflict that existed between each act's exclusivity provision by looking at which one was enacted last. Id. at 186. Concerned with the potential for an employer's dual liability and persuaded by the reasoning of a single case from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, [5] we "decline[d] to interpret the Human Rights Act as applicable here." Id.

         Here, the parties dispute whether Karst is good law and whether this case is distinguishable from Karst. The City argues that we must follow Karst under the doctrine of stare decisis because the Legislature has not amended either act in response to Karst. Reasoning that this case is indistinguishable from Karst, the City asserts that Daniel's claims under the human rights act are barred by the workers' compensation act.[6]

         Daniel urges us to overrule Karst and hold that the two exclusivity provisions do not conflict. He contends that he can pursue his claims under the human rights act because they relate to discrimination, an injury that is separate and distinct from a workplace injury that may precede the discrimination. Alternatively, even if we continue to adhere to Karst, Daniel argues that his claims are distinguishable because Karst is limited to claims for an employer's refusal to rehire a disabled employee ...


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