Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. 8000 Flour Exchange Building 310 Fourth Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55415 612.455.0500
Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. 8000 Flour Exchange Building 310 Fourth Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55415 612.455.0500

Minnesota Human Rights Act Clarified by Pair of Supreme Court Decisions

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

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

Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is an employment law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their employment law attorneys can be reached at 612.455.0500.