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Court rules firefighter injured on job can sue for disability bias

firefighter disability

With two judges dissenting, the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that exclusive remedy does not bar an injured firefighter from suing for discrimination after the City of Minneapolis Fire Department allegedly failed to accommodate his disability by allowing him to wear tennis shoes and retaliated against him for seeking the accommodation.

Keith Daniel worked as a firefighter for the Minneapolis Fire Department for 14 years and suffered numerous work-related injuries, including many injuries to his right ankle and to his shoulders. He eventually requested a footwear accommodation, which was the focus of a lawsuit he filed in 2016 claiming the fire department violated the antidiscrimination provisions in the Minnesota Human Rights Act, according to documents in Keith Daniel v. City of Minneapolis, filed in the high court in St. Paul.

His complaint focused on the department's response to his request to wear tennis shoes and not station shoes, as part of the required uniform. A doctor hired by the city to examine Mr. Daniel following a comp claim concluded that the firefighter’s ankle issues were "aggravated by his . . . need to walk on uneven surfaces wearing heeled shoes at work," documents state. He recommended Mr. Daniel wear flat shoes, but opined Mr. Daniel could work full time without restrictions, records state.

After a fire captain told Mr. Daniel he could wear black tennis shoes in the station house, Mr. Daniel purchased black tennis shoes and fitted them with special inserts. The city compensated Mr. Daniel for the black tennis shoes, orthotic inserts, supportive rescue boots, and lost wages. Mr. Daniel then wore the tennis shoes at the station house for about six to eight weeks, until May 2015, when the station deputy chief told him that “he could no longer wear them because they did not comply with the Department's policy for station shoes,” records state.

He reverted to wearing station shoes, his ankle started to "swell" again and "exacerbated his pain," records state. Two months after being told he could not wear his prescribed tennis shoes, Mr. Daniel reinjured his ankle and soon seriously injured his shoulder when he lost his footing climbing down from a fire truck, records state.

The fire department then placed Mr. Daniel on light-duty status after the shoulder injury. While working on light-duty status, the department did not allow Mr. Daniel to wear his prescribed tennis shoes. Because Mr. 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 he could return to work if his work restrictions allowed him to wear shoes that complied with the department's footwear policy, records state.

While on injury leave, Mr. Daniel and the department engaged in "numerous" meetings to discuss a shoe that would comply with the department's uniform policy and Mr. Daniel's footwear prescription; they never agreed on an acceptable shoe, records state. The department then informed Mr. 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,” records state.

In his 2015 human rights lawsuit, he claimed 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 claimed that the department retaliated against him for seeking an accommodation, finding that a functional-capacity examination conducted by the city 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 Mr. Daniel, documents state.

Daniel accepted the early retirement benefits in March 2016. 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,” records state.

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

The city moved for summary judgment on his suit, arguing in part that “the exclusivity provision of the workers' compensation act bars Daniel's claims under the human rights act.” Mr. Daniel also moved for summary judgment. The district court denied both motions, concluding that both “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 Mr. Daniel alleged under that act” and that “factual disputes precluded summary judgment on Daniel's claims,” records state.

The city then filed an interlocutory appeal, 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.” The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the district court's decision to deny summary judgment on the human rights act claims, according to documents.

On Wednesday, the high court reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings on the merits of Mr. Daniel's claims under the human rights act writing: “Because Daniel's alleged injury under the human rights act arose not from his original ankle injury but from his employer's alleged discriminatory response to that injury, his injury is not a covered injury under the workers' compensation act. The two statutory schemes address distinct injuries. As a result, we conclude that no conflict exists between the exclusivity provisions of the workers' compensation act and the human rights act.”

One of the two dissenting judges wrote that Mr. Daniel's “failure-to-accommodate claim exists only because he suffered ankle injuries for which he has received compensation under the workers' compensation act. The City's liability under the human rights act is ‘on account of’ Daniel's compensated injuries. Therefore, I would hold that the district court is deprived of jurisdiction over Daniel's failure-to-accommodate claim by reason of (state law).”

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal wrote in an email to Business Insurance that the decision “overturns a precedent that was in place since 1989.”

“The Fire Department has to balance three priorities in matters like this: (1) its performance as emergency responder; (2) employee safety; and (3) the duty to make reasonable accommodation. All three are important and we believe that we will be able to demonstrate that the Department struck the right balance in this case,” she wrote.













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