United States: Minnesota Supreme Court Expands And Contracts Human Rights Act Coverage In Two Decisions On Disability Discrimination

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently issued two decisions affecting employers in the state. In one, the high court overruled a 30-year-old precedent that excluded disabilities covered by the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act from the disability discrimination provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In the other, the court held that the Minnesota Human Rights Act does not require that employers engage in an interactive process when considering reasonable accommodations for an employee with a disability.

Conditions Covered by the Workers' Compensation Act No Longer Are Excluded From the Human Rights Act

The Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act, like nearly all similar statutes, includes an exclusivity provision. This provision is intended to limit recovery for workplace injuries to the no-fault, statutory remedies provided by the legislature in the place of the former common law, fault-based claims for work-related personal injuries that often were defeated by common law defenses. Likewise, the Minnesota Human Rights Act contains an exclusivity provision "as to acts declared unfair" by that statute.

In Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., Inc. 447 N.W.2d 180 (November 3, 1989), the Minnesota Supreme Court struck a balance between these two exclusivity provisions, holding that the exclusivity provision of the Workers' Compensation Act barred the employee's claims for disability discrimination under the Human Rights Act. In reaching that decision, the court expressed concern over the possibility of "dual liability" that an employer might incur under the two statutes.

Recently, a 5–2 majority of the court, in an opinion authored by Justice Margaret Chutich in Daniel v. City of Minneapolis No. A17-0141 (February 27, 2019), rejected the reasoning in Karst, which focused on the availability of a remedy for a particular injury and not the nature or cause of the injury itself. In Daniel, a case that went to the court on an interlocutory appeal from a grant of summary judgment in favor of the city, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower court and held that the correct reading of the two statutes requires consideration of the distinctions between the types of injuries addressed by the statutes.

Keith Daniel, a firefighter, had suffered an injury to his ankle while performing rescue duties. His doctor prescribed "tennis shoes with arch support + high rescue boot high ankle" to reduce pain and improve ankle stability. The city accepted liability for his work-related injury, and it allowed him to wear special shoes while at work. Later Daniel reinjured his ankle and suffered a shoulder injury. His department placed him on light-duty status, but, for reasons that are not clear, it would not allow him to wear his special tennis shoes. Daniel claimed that not being able to wear the special tennis shoes made it impossible for him to perform the light-duty job within his restrictions.

Explaining that the Workers' Compensation Act deals with personal injuries, while the Human Rights Act is a civil rights law, Chutich wrote that, while the court was reluctant to overrule its precedents, it was apparent that the court in the Karst case focused primarily on the remedies available under the two statutes and not on the nature or case of the injury. The Human Rights Act, the opinion states, is not intended to compensate an employee for physical or similar injuries. Rather, the statute serves the purposes of redressing discrimination in the workplace "as well as the loss of a fair employment opportunity because of the alleged failure to accommodate his physical disability." These "are alleged injuries distinct from the ankle injury suffered by Daniel many months before the dispute over accommodation arose."

Justice Paul Holden Anderson dissented. He stands by the court's precedent in Karst, which relies on three principles that are central to the operation of the workers' compensation system. First, he states that the exclusivity principle is to be broadly construed, and exceptions should be rare and narrow. Second, the court has historically refused to divide work-related injuries into personal injuries covered by the Workers' Compensation Act and the separate consequences of those injuries that are compensable outside of the act. Third, he argues that the matter should be left to the legislature to amend the exclusivity principle if it disagrees with that principle.

He also touched upon the "troubling consequences" of the majority's decision. "The court's reasoning undermines workers' compensation exclusivity, implicates double-recovery by employees, and likely will result in a proliferation of failure-to-accommodate litigation over workplace injuries."

The decision is likely to spark additional claims of refusal to provide a reasonable accommodation under the Human Rights Act in cases involving workplace injuries subject to the Workers' Compensation Act. Though the majority determined that such claims under the Human Rights Act entail a different type of damages and serve a different purpose, the primary role of the Workers' Compensation Act is to compensate for workplace injuries, including lost wages and temporary, partial, and total disability. Notably, the majority's decision did not reflect the compromise struck by the legislature when it abolished certain common law defenses to such claims in exchange for the certainty and exclusivity of the injury compensation and wage loss schedules in the Workers' Compensation Act. This ruling is likely to double recovery in some cases.

Employers Do Not Need to Engage in an Interactive Process With Employees Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act

In a significant departure from the longstanding requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in McBee v. Team Indust., Inc., __ N.W.2d __, No. A17-0060, 2019 WL 1372002 (March 27, 2019) that under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, an employer is not required to engage in an interactive process when attempting to determine what type of reasonable accommodation may allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the job without undue hardship to the employer.

Thaleaha McBee worked on the production line at Team Industries' aluminum die-casting facility. McBee experienced back pain during her employment and consulted a doctor. She informed her supervisor that her doctor told her "looking up" could cause paralysis and that she was instructed to limit her lifting to items ten pounds or less. The supervisor assigned McBee to a different machine that night. McBee was asked to meet with human resources the following night. During that meeting, she told Team's human resources representative about her 10-pound lifting restriction and that looking up could cause paralysis. She was ultimately sent home and did not work her shift. She was discharged over the phone the following day. McBee informed Team during the phone call that she had been cleared to work by her doctor as long as she followed the lifting restriction. However, Team determined that McBee could no longer work for the company "[b]ecause of the danger of injury."

McBee commenced a lawsuit against Team claiming that it failed to participate in an interactive process in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, among other things. Team moved for summary judgment, arguing that the act did not require the company to participate in an interactive process with McBee. The district court agreed, and the court of appeals affirmed the decision.

On appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, McBee encouraged the court to look at the act under the lens of the ADA (which requires the parties to engage in an interactive process). The court declined to do so, as the Minnesota Human Rights Act does not specifically contain such a provision. McBee asserted various other arguments claiming that the relevant statutes required Team to engage in an interactive process. Ultimately, the court rejected those arguments as well and held "that the Minnesota Human Rights Act does not mandate that employers engage employees in an interactive process to determine whether reasonable accommodations can be made."

While this is an employer-friendly decision, it likely will not have much of an impact for Minnesota employers. This is because employers with fifteen or more employees have obligations under the ADA to consider reasonable accommodations for their employees (including engaging in an interactive process). As a result, employers may want to continue to engage in an interactive process with employees to determine whether reasonable accommodations exist.

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