may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Industrial Molded Rubber Products/Promed,
Filed March 23, 1999
Reversed and remanded
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 97014667
David P. Jendrzejek, Paul J. Yechout, Moss & Barnett, P.A., 4800 Norwest Center, 90 South Seventh Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402-4129 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
Appellant Beth Weber challenges the district court's adverse judgment on her retaliatory discharge claim, contending that an employee cannot release an employer from retaliatory discharge liability in a workers' compensation settlement. We conclude that although the district court had jurisdiction to consider whether the workers' compensation settlement released respondent Industrial Molded Rubber Products/Promed from retaliatory discharge liability, the language of the release in this case does not encompass a retaliatory discharge claim as a matter of law. We reverse and remand.
Weber began employment with Industrial on November 21, 1994. On January 31, 1995, Weber was injured and notified Industrial of her injuries. Industrial and its insurer denied liability, contending that Weber's injuries did not arise out of or in the course of her employment. On February 2, 1995, Industrial terminated Weber's employment.
On August 18, 1995, Weber filed a workers' compensation claim. In November 1996, the parties resolved the claim in a stipulation for settlement approved by a workers' compensation judge. The settlement contained a release provision indicating that the settlement would constitute a "full, final and complete settlement of any and all past, present or future claims under the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act."
On March 19, 1997, Weber filed a retaliatory discharge claim in district court. Industrial moved to dismiss, contending that the workers' compensation settlement released Industrial from liability for retaliatory discharge. The district court addressed Industrial's motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03 and entered judgment for Industrial as a matter of law.
On appeal from summary judgment, this court asks whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in applying the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). This court must view the evidence in "the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was granted." Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993). This court reviews de novo a grant of summary judgment involving questions of law. Christensen v. Eggen, 577 N.W.2d 221, 224 (Minn. 1998). Where the parties do not dispute the material facts, this court need not defer to the district court's application of the law. Hubred v. Control Data Corp., 442 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Minn. 1989).
Minnesota law provides an employee with a cause of action for retaliatory discharge against "any person" for "intentionally obstructing" an employee who seeks workers' compensation benefits. Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1 (1998). Retaliatory discharge is a civil action "separate and independent from any penalties that might be awarded under the Workers' Compensation Act." Bergeson v. United States Fidelity & Guar. Co., 414 N.W.2d 724, 726 (Minn. 1987) (citing Kaluza v. Home Ins. Co., 403 N.W.2d 230, 234-35 (Minn. 1987)).
1. Both parties argue that the legal question of whether the workers' compensation settlement release precludes liability for the retaliatory discharge claim is controlled by Karnes v. Quality Pork Processors, 532 N.W.2d 560 (Minn. 1995). In Karnes, the supreme court held that "when a party pleads a release contained in a workers' compensation settlement as an affirmative defense in a subsequent retaliatory discharge action," the district court has jurisdiction to determine the validity and extent of such a release. Karnes, 532 N.W.2d at 563. The district court has jurisdiction rather than the workers' compensation court of appeals because a retaliatory discharge action is "a common law cause of action outside the purview of the Workers' Compensation Act." Id. (citing Bergeson, 414 N.W.2d at 727).
Weber relies on a footnote in Karnes to argue that she cannot discharge her right to pursue a claim for retaliatory discharge in a workers' compensation stipulation for settlement. In that footnote, the supreme court stated that
it seems to us that it is not possible under the workers' compensation system to enter into a settlement of a retaliatory discharge claim and that it cannot be said that [the section 176.82] claim was part of the workers' compensation settlement that was approved by the compensation judge.
Karnes, 532 N.W.2d at 563 n.2. The supreme court has since quoted this footnote when explaining that workers' compensation and a civil action under section 176.82 are two claims independent of each other. See In re Disciplinary Action Against Strid, 551 N.W.2d 212, 216 (Minn. 1996) (holding no obligation to place section 176.82 settlement before workers' compensation judge).
We read the Karnes footnote to mean that it is not possible for the workers' compensation judge to approve a release of a retaliatory discharge claim. Even in footnote two, Karnes does not state that it is impossible for a district court to find valid a release from a retaliatory discharge claim in a workers' compensation stipulation for settlement. Rather Karnes indicates that the district court, and not the workers' compensation system, has jurisdiction over retaliatory discharge claims. This includes determining whether a prior workers' compensation settlement agreement might validly release an employer from a retaliatory discharge claim.
2. We must next consider whether the release in this case provides an affirmative defense to the retaliatory discharge action as a matter of law. A release is an agreement not to enforce an existing cause of action against a party to the agreement, and is governed by the rules of contract construction. Karnes, 532 N.W.2d at 562. Among factors to consider in determining the validity and extent of a release is the language of the release itself. Schmidt v. Smith, 299 Minn. 103, 109-10, 216 N.W.2d 669, 673 (1974). The law presumes that parties to a release agreement intended what is expressed in a signed writing. Sorensen v. Coast-to-Coast Stores (Central Org.), Inc., 353 N.W.2d 666, 670 (Minn. App. 1984), review denied (Minn. Nov. 7, 1984).
Here, the stipulation for settlement between Weber and Industrial states that payment "shall constitute a full, final and complete settlement of any and all past, present and future claims under the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act." In contrast to the language of the release in Karnes, this release makes no mention of section 176.82 claims whatsoever. A section 176.82 claim is a common law cause of action arising outside of the workers' compensation act. Strid, 551 N.W.2d at 216; Karnes, 532 N.W.2d at 563. Accordingly, the district court erred as a matter of law when stating that the retaliatory discharge claim arises under the workers' compensation act. Since a claim for retaliatory discharge is not a claim under the workers' compensation act, the language of the release does not encompass a retaliatory discharge claim.
Reversed and remanded.