The Minnesota Supreme Court issued two decisions in 2019 interpreting the scope of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) as to protections against discrimination based on an employee’s disability. Together, the two rulings reinforce the idea that employers in Minnesota need to be both thoughtful and careful when responding to an employee’s request for an accommodation because the Minnesota high court is uninclined to allow technical defenses to liability, at least in the face of messy facts.
Daniel v. City of Minneapolis
In Daniel v. City of Minneapolis, 923 N.W.2d 637 (Minn. 2019), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a claim of disability discrimination under the MHRA by a Minneapolis firefighter was not barred by the exclusive-remedy provision of the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”). Daniel was a 14-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department. He injured his right ankle while performing rescue duties in 2014. His doctor prescribed special tennis shoes with arch support to reduce pain. Daniels filed for workers compensation benefits and the City accepted liability. The Fire Department resisted the idea that Daniels could wear non-standard footwear at the fire station, however.
Daniels asserted a discrimination claim under the MHRA. The City moved for summary judgment on the basis that that the WCA provides that an employer’s liability under the act displaces “any other liability . . . on account of such injury.” Minn. Stat. § 176.031. The district court denied summary judgment but the City filed an interlocutory appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals which reversed. The City appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court which reversed the Court of Appeals and overruled its own earlier decision in Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., 447 N.W.2d 180 (Minn. 1989).
The Supreme Court held that the remedies of the MHRA were different than those under the WCA and noted that Daniels was claiming injury arising from the City’s response to his disability not liability for the injury itself. The Court also emphasized the purpose behind civil rights laws including to protect dignity and worth for persons with disabilities. Finally, it noted that disability discrimination law had evolved since the Karst decision in 1989 which predated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (also discussed below) by one year. The outcome of Daniel is that employers must consider potential implications under both the MHRA and the WCA when an employee is injured on the job and returns to work with restrictions.
McBee v. Team Industries
Both the MHRA and the ADA require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees with a disability. (The ADA does not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees but the MHRA does). As Human Resources professionals know, regulations enacted under the ADA mandate than employers engage in and sometimes initiate an “interactive process” with an individual employee with a disability. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(3). The language of the MHRA does not include that same specific requirement but Minnesota courts routinely take guidance from federal discrimination law. It was therefore somewhat surprising to some that, in McBee v. Team Industries, 925 N.W.2d 222 (Minn. 2019), the Minnesota Supreme Court definitively 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.”
The appellant, McBee, worked at an aluminum die-casting plant in Detroit Lakes. She suffered from vertebrate disc narrowing, a bulged disc or discs in her neck and back and bone spurs in her vertebrae. Her doctor put her on a ten-pound lifting restriction and recommended that she not “bend her neck up” or she could risk paralysis. McBee informed her employer of the restrictions and engaged in discussion as to whether she could perform her duties in a physically demanding job environment. She was then fired. The district court dismissed her claim on summary judgment and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Although the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that the MHRA did not technically require an “interactive process”, it reversed the dismissal and remanded the underlying claim as to whether a reasonable accommodation could be made because it found genuine issues of material fact. What would appear to be a victory for the employer, therefore was pyrrhic at best, as the employee’s claim was resuscitated. As the Supreme Court noted in its footnote number 4, “an employer may avoid communicating with an employee seeking accommodation at its own peril. As a practical matter, thorough communication may be the only way to determine whether the employee could reasonably be accommodated – and for the employer to avoid liability.”
The holding in McBee could presumably shield an employer in a situation where the employee never asked for or sought an accommodation as state law requires less of a proactive approach by an employer, but any company with 15 or more employees must still engage in an interactive process under the ADA. The distinction between state and federal law on this issue is therefore one that will only matter to small employers and even then, as a practical matter, they should still communicate with employees with disabilities and document the interaction.
These decisions by the Minnesota Supreme Court indicate an intention that employers take their obligations under the MHRA seriously and suggest that technical defense are rarely going to excuse an employer from making a reasonable accommodation under Minnesota law. If you have questions about how to accommodate an employee’s request for an accommodation contact the employment attorneys at Trepanier MacGillis Battina, P.A.
About the Author
V. John Ella is a Minnesota employment law attorney. He can be reached at 612.455.6237 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.