It is generally illegal in Minnesota to threaten or actually fire an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefits in Minnesota. The law seeks to compensate employees who were dismissed in retaliation for pursuing workers’ comp; punish employers engaged in illegal conduct, and discourage others from violating the law.
Minn. Stat. § 176.82 of the Minn. Worker’s Comp. Act (WCA)
Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, provides for a cause of action for:
- threatening to discharge an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefit;
- intentionally obstructing an employee seeking benefits; or,
- discharging an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefits.
Threatening to Discharge an Employee
A claim for threatening to discharge an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefits in violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, requires the plaintiff to show:
- any person with knowledge that the plaintiff may have suffered a workplace injury;
- attempted to dissuade the plaintiff from seeking worker’s compensation benefits;
- through one or more communications created a reasonable apprehension of discharge; and,
- caused the plaintiff to delay or cease seeking benefits.
Any “person” may be an individual, an insurance carrier, or an employer under section 176.82. A “threat” is a communicated intent to take certain action if the threatened person does not conform his or her behavior to a desired standard.
Given that insurers are strictly liable for workplace injuries under the WCA, once a workplace injury occurs, it is certain to both the employer and the employee that any resulting lost wages and medical benefits will be covered by workers’ compensation. Accordingly, any employee who has suffered a workplace injury may be perceived to be “seeking” workers’ compensation benefits for the purposes of the statute.
Intentionally Obstructing Employee Seeking Benefits
A claim for intentionally obstructing an employee seeking workers’ compensation benefits in violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, requires the plaintiff to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that:
- any person obstructs or hinders, whether by deliberate action or inaction;
- the receipt of benefits due to employee; and,
- does so in a manner that is egregiously cruel or extreme.
Minn. Stat. § 176.225, subd. 1 (2012), authorizes an additional award to a claimant of up to 25% of the total compensation award where the employer or insurer has opposed the claim on frivolous grounds, unreasonably delayed payment, intentionally underpaid compensation, or neglected or refused to pay compensation.
Discharging an Employee Seeking Benefits
A claim for discharging an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefits in violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, requires the plaintiff to show:
- statutorily protected conduct by the employee;
- adverse employment action by the employer, and
- a causal connection between the two.
The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. If the employer meets that burden of production, the burden shifts back to the employee to demonstrate that the employer’s stated reason for its action was more likely than not pretextual.
Any person who violates Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, is liable in a civil action for damages incurred. Damages available include:
- diminution in workers’ compensation benefits caused by violation;
- attorney’s fees; and,
- punitive damages not to exceed three the amount of any compensation benefit to which the employee is entitled.
Although the court has discretion to award punitive damages for a section 176.82 violation, a statutory violation does not result automatically in an award of punitive damages. A party can only recover punitive damages where he is able to prove actual damages. Any damages awarded will not be offset by any workers’ compensation benefits.
Under basic agency principles, an employer is vicariously liable for the actions of a supervisor who threatens to discharge an employee for seeking workers’ compensation benefits in violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1.
A claim alleging retaliatory discharge in violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, seeking only money damages, is an action in tort and is therefore an action at law with an attendant right to a jury trial under the Minnesota Constitution. It should be noted here that a party is not entitled to a jury trial on a refusal-to-offer-continued-employment claim under Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 2 (2012).
Refusal to Offer Continued Employment
A claim for refusal to offer continued employment in violation of Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1, requires the plaintiff to show:
- an employer;
- refuses to offer continued employment to its employee;
- without reasonable cause;
- when employment is available within the employee’s physical limitations.
In determining the availability of employment, the court may consider:
- continuation of the business of the employer;
- seniority; and
- the provisions in a collective bargaining agreement.
This subdivision does not apply to employers who employ 15 or few full-time equivalent employees.
An employer who violates Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 2, is liable in a civil action for one year’s wages. The wages are payable:
- from the date of the refusal to offer continued employment;
- at the same time and rate as the employee’s preinjury wage;
- up to $15,000.
The policy behind this statute is to:
- provide redress to employees dismissed in retaliation for pursuing workers’ compensation;
- punish employers guilty of retaliatory discharges; and
- deter such conduct by others.