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This is an employment law case which involves the workers’ compensation anti-retaliation statue, Minn. Stat. 176.82. The underlying facts of this case concern an employee who came to the United States on a tourist visa, but continued to live in the United States without documentation after the visa expired. He bought a social security number to apply for jobs, and this social security number was provided to the employer when he was hired in 2005. The employee alleged his managers were aware that he was no legally authorized to work in the United States.
He was injured in 2013 while operating a sandblaster. He missed work and incurred medical expenses. A claim petition was filed, and the workers’ compensation claim had settled. In any event, in his deposition, he testified he was not legally authorized to work in the United States. After his deposition, he was asked about his legal status by his employer, and he was told he could not work for the employer any longer due to his legal status. He was then presented with a letter – which he signed – indicating that he had voluntarily told his employer that his social security documentation was not legitimate and that he was not authorized to work in the United States, and thus, he was sent home on unpaid leave. He could return to work once he provided legitimate paperwork evidencing he could legally work in the United States.
Procedurally, the employee sued the employer under Minn. Stat. 176.82 for retaliatory discharge. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer concluding there was no issue raised of material fact about whether the employee was discharged due seeking workers’ compensation benefits. The Court of Appeal reversed, and the Supreme Court affirmed.
Minn. Stat. 176.82 only applies in cases of discharge, threatened discharge, and intentional obstruction of benefits. Thus, there was a question on whether the employee’s “leave” constituted discharge. The Court held that the actual intent of the employer was key in determining whether discharge occurred, and where the employee is placed on “temporary” leave, but the intent is for the leave to not end, then said “leave” amounts to discharge. If the motivation was retaliatory, then it implies there was intent for the leave to be permanent. This was determined to be an issue of factual dispute, which was to be resolved by a factfinder.
In addition, the Court held there was an issue of genuine material fact regarding whether the employee was discharged for seeking workers’ compensation benefits, another element of Minn. Stat. 176.82. The Court noted that the employee asserted the employer knew about his immigration status for years prior to the workers’ compensation injury.
Finally, the Court held the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) did not preempt an undocumented worker’s claim under 176.82. The Court indicated employer could have complied with IRCA and 176.82, if the employee had been discharged due to immigration status.
Impact: This is a procedural employment law opinion; however, the impact on workers’ compensation is that an employee can bring a 176.82 retaliatory discharge claim even if the employee is placed on “leave” when it is the employer’s intent is for the employee not to return to work. In addition, complying with IRCA will not be a defense to a 176.82 claim when the discharge is retaliatory for bringing a workers’ compensation claim. Simply put, where an employer knows that the employee is undocumented prior to the workers’ compensation claim, and discharges the employee after the workers’ compensation claim on the basis of the employee being undocumented, they expose themselves to a 176.82 claim.
The full decision can be found here: http://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/Appellate/Supreme%20Court/Standard%20Opinions/OPA151183-062817.pdf
Summary prepared by Elizabeth Cox, associate attorney.