Minnesota Supreme Courts Issues Three Significant Decisions in Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Cases

Two Cases Address Applying the “Increased-Risk” Test for Determining Causation         

The Minnesota Supreme Court issued two decisions on June 28, 2017, addressing “the increased-risk” test.  One provided some clarification on how far it will go in applying “the increased-risk” test, and the other, marks the latest in series of cases in which the Supreme Court rebuked perceived over-reaching by the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA).

To establish a work injury, an employee must prove it arose out of and in the course of employment. To determine whether an injury “arose out of” employment, Minnesota courts use the “increased- risk” test. This test requires an employee to prove her work environment increased her risk of injury above that experienced by the general public. Since the Supreme Court issued its 2013 decision in Dykhoff explicitly adopting the “increased-risk” test for causation, our appellate courts (the Minnesota Workers Compensation Court of Appeals and Minnesota Supreme Court) have struggled to determine how far to apply it.  Before today's decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court had only one case since Dykhoff interpreting the “increased-risk test”.  In Kainz, the Minnesota Supreme Court remanded the case back to the compensation judge for further findings after it found the WCCA’s decision, which seemed to go out of its way not to apply the “increased risk” test, “manifestly contrary to the evidence”.

In Hohlt v. University of Minnesota [A16-0349] (Minn. 2017), a divided Minnesota Supreme Court concluded an employee's injury arose out of and in the course of employment. In doing so, it affirmed the WCCA's reversal of a compensation judge's conclusion that the claimant's injury did not arise out of her employment.

The case involved a claimant who worked as a painter for the University of Minnesota and utilized a parking ramp owned and operated by the U, which provided her with a special contractor rate but also provided parking to the public.  Her route between the ramp and her work site was entirely on University campus premises. On the date of injury, she completed her job duties and walked east on the sidewalk leading to the parking ramp.  As she descended a small decline in the sidewalk (an area which provided easier access for ability-impaired pedestrians), the employee slipped on ice and sustained an injury.

Compensation Judge James Cannon accepted the employer's argument the injury did not arise out of her employment per Dykhoff and denied her claim. The WCCA reversed. It distinguished between special risk injuries and “increased risk” injuries under Dykhoff.  Notably, the WCCA held the special risk /special hazard analysis only comes into play where an employee is not on an employer's premises when injured.  However, if an employee is injured on an employer's premises, the correct inquiry is whether the employee was subjected to an increased risk of injury.   In reaching its decision, the court highlighted the University's acknowledgement that it had a duty to maintain the sidewalk where the employee fell and to mitigate the hazards of traveling on an icy sidewalk. The WCCA further held the employee was within the course and scope of her employment when her injury occurred.  Notably, the employee had just clocked out and remained on her employer's premises as she walked towards the parking ramp also owned and operated by the employer.

The WCCA held, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that the claimant's injury arose out of and in the course of her employment.  In doing so, the Court rejected the employer and insurer's argument for a broad interpretation of the “increased-risk test” from Dykhoff. Judge Lillehaug, writing for a divided court, wrote that “when an employee encounters an increased risk of injury from a hazard on the employer’s premises because of her employment, her injury is one ‘arising out of’ employment under the statute.”

What should we take away from this case?  The Supreme Court and the WCCA's decisions in Hohlt define further the applicability of the “increased –risk” doctrine.  The Supreme Court agreed with the WCCA that the Employer‘s interpretation of the “increased risk” test was overbroad.

In Kubis v. Community Mem'l Hosp. Assoc., [A16-0361] (Minn. 2017), the Supreme Court decided the WCCA inappropriately reversed a compensation judge's finding of no compensability and “impermissibly substituted its own view of the evidence”.

This case involved a nurse injured when she fell at work because she was fatigued and rushing to the nurse’s station to complete her reporting requirements prior to the end of her shift. The complete WCCA reversed a compensation judge’s denial of compensation and concluded the employee's injury arose out of her employment.  The compensation judge did not address the fatigue issue but found not credible her allegation that she was rushing up the stairs because she felt pressured to get her job done before the end of her shift.  The WCCA reversed the compensation judge and found the employee’s injury arose out of her employment.  The Minnesota Supreme court reversed the WCCA, ruling it exceeded its power of review by substituting its own view of the evidence to overturn the compensation judge's factual determinations.

What should we take away from this case?  This case represents the latest of several recent Supreme Court reversals of the WCCA for exceeding its scope of review. In each of these recent cases, the WCCA reversed a compensation judge's ruling in favor of the employer and insurer and awarded benefits to the injured worker.  In Kubis, the Supreme Court majority found the WCCA “clearly and manifestly erred” when it rejected the compensation judge's findings.

Court Concludes Undocumented Workers Can Bring .82 Claims

In Sanchez v. Dahlke Trailer Sales, Inc., the Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and remanded the case back to the District Court. The Supreme Court held that the trial court inappropriately granted summary judgment for the employer because the employee had raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether they discharged him in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. The Supreme Court determined Sanchez was “discharged” within the meaning of the statute. The Court concluded there was a genuine dispute about whether the employer discharged the employee because he was an undocumented worker, as the employer claimed, or whether they terminated him because he filed a work comp claim, as the employee contended.

The high court also held that federal immigration law did not preempt an undocumented worker’s claim for retaliatory discharge under Minn. Stat. § 176.82. It decided that the workers' compensation law, a traditional state power, is not superseded by federal immigration law except when there is a conflict between the two, namely conflict preemption. The conflict preemption occurs when it is impossible to comply with both state and federal requirements and complying with a state law “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” Id. Upon review, the court ruled the employer could have complied with federal immigration without violating the antiretaliation statute if it discharged the employee for his immigration status, and not for his protected activity (filing a work comp claim). It also held that Minnesota's antiretaliation statute does not stand as an obstacle to the aims of federal immigration law. In fact, holding that Minn. Stat. § 176.82 did not apply to employers of undocumented workers would thwart Congress' aim to discourage employers from hiring illegal aliens.

What should we take away from this case?  Sanchez marks the latest Minnesota Supreme Court case extending to undocumented workers the protections and rights afforded by Minnesota's workers' compensation laws.  Undocumented workers can bring claims for workers' compensation benefits, and Sanchez confirmed they can also file civil retaliation claims under Minn. Stat. § 176.82.