Undocumented Workers Gain Minnesota Supreme Court Victory in Decision for Compensation Benefits Rights
September 25th, 2017
The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a decision last month in Sanchez v. Dahlke Trailers, Inc. that is a victory for undocumented workers in Minnesota, and, more generally, for all employees in Minnesota who are terminated by their employers because they seek workers’ compensation benefits.
Respondent Anibal Sanchez is an undocumented worker from Mexico who had lived in the United States since 1998 without legal authorization. He began working for Appellant Dahlke Trailers in 2005, and alleged that his supervisors at Dahlke became aware soon after the beginning of his employment that he was undocumented, making several comments to him over the years about his legal status. In September of 2013, Sanchez filed for workers’ compensation benefits after being injured at work. When he hired an attorney to represent him in his workers’ compensation proceeding, his supervisor at Dahlke told him that the “bridge” between them was “broken” because Sanchez was seeking workers’ compensation benefits. During a deposition for the workers’ compensation case, the insurer’s attorney asked Sanchez if he was legally authorized to work in the US, to which Sanchez responded that he was not. Following the deposition, Dahlke sent Sanchez a letter stating that he was being suspended indefinitely without pay until he could produce documentation showing he was authorized to work in the United States.
The Court, with Justice Chutich writing for the majority, held that there was evidence that Sanchez’s termination was motivated by his workers’ compensation claim; that placing Sanchez on an indefinite, unpaid suspension was equivalent to discharging him; and that federal immigration law did not preempt Sanchez’s claims. The Court therefore affirmed the Court of Appeals in overturning the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Dahlke, and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
The Court relied on the dictionary definition of the word ‘discharge’ in holding that, for purposes of the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, an employee is discharged when “the employer ends the employment relationship between them with no intent to resume it.” The Court reasoned that “[t]he focus on the employer’s actual intent prevents employers from avoiding a retaliation charge by simply attaching a different label to what in reality is a discharge.” Whether the employer intended the employment relationship to end is a fact question, and the Court held there were fact questions precluding summary judgment as to whether Dahlke ever intended to rehire Sanchez.
The Court also held that there was enough evidence to go to trial on whether Sanchez’s termination was motivated by his seeking workers’ compensation benefits. This was based on evidence that Dahlke did not care about Sanchez’s legal status prior to him seeking workers’ compensation benefits, and his supervisor’s comment about their bridge being broken after Sanchez hired a workers’ compensation attorney.
Finally, the Court held that the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act did not preempt the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, because the goals of the two statutes are not in conflict. IRCA’s goal is to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers; the MWCA’s goal is to prevent employers for terminating employees because they have sought workers’ compensation benefits. The Court held that since there is no reason why an employer cannot comply with both statutes, the two are not in conflict, and therefore the MWCA is not pre-empted by IRCA.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Anderson disagreed that Sanchez was “discharged” within the meaning of the MWCA, because Dahlke had offered to re-employ Sanchez if he could produce papers showing he was legally authorized to work in the US. The dissent would have held that IRCA pre-empts the MWCA, because Dahlke continuing to employ Sanchez after learning he was not authorized to work in the US would violate federal law.
Following the Sanchez decision, it will now be easier for employees in Minnesota to show that they were discharged for seeking workers’ compensation benefits. It will also be more difficult for employers to get away with firing an employee by labeling a termination as an “indefinite, unpaid” suspension. Finally, the Sanchez decision protects the rights of undocumented workers to seek workers’ compensation benefits, and to come forward and report illegal conduct by their employers.
Emma Denny is an experienced, tough employment attorney, who is relentless in her pursuit of justice for clients who have been wronged by their employer. She has successfully litigated cases in state and federal court and negotiated favorable resolutions for clients facing discrimination, whistleblower, harassment, FMLA, ERISA, disability and religious accommodation, wage, retaliation, contract agreements and a host of other disputes.