Tennis shoe case could lead to wave of discrimination cases, justice warns

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that a Minneapolis firefighter can sue for discrimination under the state’s Human Rights Act because the department refused to allow him to wear tennis shoes because of an injury.

Keith Daniel, a 14-year firefighter, injured an ankle in 2014 when performing a rescue. He and Minneapolis reached a deal under worker’s compensation to provide him with medically necessary black tennis shoes and give him lost wages.

But a few weeks later, a deputy fire chief told him the shoes violate department policy, and shortly thereafter, Daniel slipped and fell while getting off a truck, injuring his shoulder and reinjuring the ankle.

The Minneapolis Fire Department put him on leave and told him he could only come back to work with approved shoes or else he wouldn’t receive worker’s compensation benefits.

A month after Daniel sued the city for discrimination, he failed a physical (he couldn’t life the required weight) and the department “retired” him, and gave him a $125,000 worker’s compensation benefit.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled he couldn’t sue because the state’s workers compensation law takes precedent — “exclusivity” in this case — but today the Minnesota Supreme Court said the firefighter can sue for discrimination even though he accepted the worker’s compensation benefit. In so doing, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of reversing earlier precedent in a similar case, strengthening the reach of the Human Rights Act.

“Here, Daniel asserts that the City’s alleged discriminatory response to his disability not only prevented him from working, but violated his civil rights by harming his dignity and self-respect as a disabled employee,” Justice Margaret Chutich wrote on behalf of the majority, saying the worker’s compensation’s act does not limit his ability to sue for discrimination.

“These human rights act claims focus solely on the employer’s allegedly intentional conduct in responding to Daniel’s disability and the alleged injuries that flow from that response. They fit easily within the human rights act,” she said. “Employers cannot, based on an employee’s membership in a protected class, discharge an employee or discriminate against an employee regarding the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

“That Daniel’s disability resulted from an earlier workplace injury… is immaterial to his discrimination claim under the human rights act,” she wrote.

The court said “the damage to Daniel’s individual dignity, as well as the loss of a fair employment opportunity because of the alleged failure to accommodate his physical disability, are alleged injuries distinct from the ankle injury suffered by Daniel many months before the dispute over accommodation arose.”

But other justices said his injury arose as a result of a workplace injury and the compensation he received under the worker’s compensation law limited all liability and barred a discrimination suit.

Justice G. Barry Anderson said today’s decision undermines the worker’s compensation system which has been in effect in the state since 1913.

“The court fails to appreciate the troubling consequences of its decision,” he wrote in his dissent, joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. “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.

“If we allow employees to pursue claims outside the workers’ compensation system ‘in every case where some injury not mentioned in the act was present,’ then the workers’ compensation act will ‘become a farce,’” he wrote.

Anderson said Daniel’s claim under the Human Rights Act exists only because of an injury for which he was already compensated.

Employees will now have the right “‘to seek workers’ compensation benefits, which may include rehabilitation, job modification, and accommodation, and a contemporaneous right to seek remedies under the human rights act for an employer’s alleged failure to accommodate,” he said, predicting a wave of discrimination litigation in the state.

Chutich was having none of it.

“The dissent’s approach would immunize workplace discrimination, otherwise unlawful under the human rights act, simply because an employee’s disability arose from a workplace injury,” she wrote. “This approach would also leave a class of disabled employees without a remedy at the same time that others who have injuries or disabilities that are not work related are fully protected from discrimination by employers. This result strikes us as both anomalous and wrong.”

Here’s the full opinion.

  • MrE85

    When the history of human rights in Minnesota is written, this will be a footnote.

    • the way things are going, human rights soon will be history.

      • MrE85

        You may be right. I’m likely heading to Winnipeg this summer. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is located there. Might be worth a visit.

  • Barton

    With all the footwear options available, I can’t believe there wasn’t a boot available that fit the requirements needed for the job and provide support for the previously injured ankle (which I can’t believe was helped or supported by a tennis/athletic shoe). The tennis shoe just seems unsafe – and highly flammable.

    So strange to me that this becomes a human rights issue even after compensation was paid out….

    • Laurie K.

      The shoes in question were “station shoes”, which is a shoe they wore around the station. If they were called to a fire they wore “fire boots”, if they were called for a technical rescue they wore technical rescue boots. It seems like being allowed to wear tennis shoes at the station would be a reasonable accommodation of a disability. Also, the compensation under the WCA was for his injuries – not his loss of employment. It’s a “human rights” issue because had they accommodated his disability he would not be unemployed.

      • Jim in RF

        This is a very helpful explainer.

      • The $125k did not include liability for unemployment. The first claim included lost wages.

        • Laurie K.

          Right, like the decision indicates, the first claim for workers compensation benefits acted as it should by compensating for the medical bills and the lost wages incurred as a result of a work injury. The human rights claim is a claim for the alleged discriminatory termination of Mr. Daniel’s employment. Included in that claim would be damages for loss of employment which is distinct from a workers compensation claim. I personally think it is a good decision. Prior to this decision, if an employer discriminated against an injured worker by failing to reasonably accommodate a work injury, that worker had no recourse. This decision puts employers on notice that they can no longer hide behind the WCA and fail to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability just because they had the misfortune of becoming disabled due to a work injury.

          • It’s interesting to me that Minneapolis worked out a solution , got buy in from a captain, and then a deputy chief torpedoed it. Seems like it might have been a good idea to get everyone in the same room initially. In this decision we get a faint whiff of how messed up Minneapolis can be.

  • Mike Worcester

    //But a few weeks later, a deputy fire chief told him the shoes violate department policy…

    Moments like this remind me of the great quote by Red (Shawshank Redemption) — “Seriously, how often do you really look at a man’s shoes?”

    The original accommodation seemed to serve everyone well. If nobody noticed, who would cared? Somebody did though, and it just cost the city big time.