SUSAN K. MUSTA, Employee/Respondent, v. MENDOTA HEIGHTS DENTAL CTR., and HARTFORD INS. GRP., Employer-Insurer/Appellants.

NOVEMBER 10, 2020

JURISDICTION - SUBJECT MATTER. As the parties stipulated that the medical marijuana dispensed to the employee was reasonable and necessary to relieve the effects of the employee’s work injury, the compensation judge’s award of reimbursement is affirmed, but the findings made regarding the federal preemption issue arising under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq., are stricken as the compensation judge had no subject matter jurisdiction to consider that issue.

    Determined by:
  1. Sean M. Quinn, Judge
  2. Patricia J. Milun, Chief Judge
  3. David A. Stofferahn, Judge
  4. Gary M. Hall, Judge
  5. Deborah K. Sundquist, Judge

Compensation Judge:  Kirsten M. Tate

Attorneys: Thomas D. Mottaz, Coon Rapids, Minnesota, for the Respondent. William M. Hart, Julia J. Nierengarten, Meagher & Geer, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Kassi Erickson Grove, Law Offices of Steven G. Piland, Overland Park, Kansas, for the Appellants.




The employer and insurer appeal the Findings and Order of a compensation judge awarding reimbursement to the employee for her out-of-pocket expenses incurred in purchasing medical cannabis.  We affirm.


The employee, Susan Musta, suffered a work injury to her neck on February 11, 2003.  She has undergone numerous medical modalities to treat her symptoms including surgery, chiropractic care, medical management, physical therapy, and injections.  For some time, she was taking a long-term opioid.  On February 2, 2018, a compensation judge found that long-term opioids were not reasonable and necessary treatment because they were no longer effective, that the prescriptions did not comply with the treatment parameters, and that a departure from the treatment parameters was not appropriate.  There was no appeal.

Subsequently, a medical doctor certified the employee as suffering from intractable pain, which qualified her to obtain medical cannabis under the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research Act (MCTRA), Minn. Stat. § 152.21 et. seq. (2018), to treat her condition.  The employee then did just that, obtaining medical cannabis from a state authorized distributor and paying for the prescription out of her own pocket.  She requested reimbursement from the employer and insurer.  Because they asserted federal law preempts the MCTRA and precludes them from reimbursing the employee for these out-of-pocket expenses, they declined to do so.

The matter came on for hearing before a compensation judge on August 8, 2019.  The parties stipulated that employee’s use of medical cannabis was reasonable, necessary, and causally related treatment for her work injury.  They also stipulated that the employee had properly followed the procedures outlined in the MCTRA.  The only issue presented to the compensation judge was whether, despite the factual stipulations, an order requiring the employer and insurer to reimburse the employee for her out-of-pocket expenses associated with her use of the medical cannabis would be in violation of federal law.  Before the compensation judge issued her decision, the Office of Administrative Hearings certified the preemption question to the supreme court.  By order dated October 16, 2019, the supreme court declined to accept the certified question, stating “the legal issue presented by this workers’ compensation matter is best addressed through the decision process established by the Legislature.”  They sent the matter back to the compensation judge for resolution, informing the parties that they could go through the normal appellate process if dissatisfied with the outcome.

On November 13, 2019, the compensation judge issued her Findings and Order determining that the employer and insurer must reimburse the employee for out-of-pocket expenses associated with her use of medical cannabis.  In doing so, the compensation judge addressed the federal preemption issue and held that because the United States Congress, through their specific decision to not appropriate funds to the Department of Justice for the prosecution of any violations of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq., involving medical cannabis, there was no federal preemption of state medical cannabis laws.  Because the parties otherwise stipulated to reasonableness, necessity, and causation, the compensation judge awarded reimbursement to the employee for her out-of-pocket expenses.

The employer and insurer appeal.


On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether “the findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted.”  Minn. Stat. § 176.421, subd. 1(3).  Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, “they are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.”  Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984).  Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed.  Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240.  Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, “unless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.”  Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).

A decision which rests upon the application of a statute or rule to essentially undisputed facts generally involves a question of law which the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals may consider de novo.  Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607, 608 (W.C.C.A. 1993), summarily aff’d (Minn. June 3, 1993).


An employer and insurer are required to pay for all reasonable, necessary, and causally related medical expenses to treat an injured employee.  Minn. Stat. §176.135.  The parties stipulated that the employee’s use of medical cannabis is a reasonable, necessary, and causally related treatment for her work injury.  Consequently, the employee’s claim for reimbursement for her out-of-pocket expenses for her medical cannabis is compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Though compensable under state law, the employer and insurer argue that federal law preempts the state’s medical cannabis law.  The question raised to this court is whether  the CSA, which governs the manufacture, distribution, and possession of marijuana, preempts the MCTRA and precludes a Minnesota workers’ compensation judge from awarding reimbursement to an injured employee for her out-of-pocket expenses associated with purchasing medical cannabis to treat her work injury.

To answer this question, this court would need to interpret and apply laws beyond the Workers’ Compensation Act and beyond our limited jurisdiction.[1]  The mere fact that our supreme court declined to consider this matter on a certified question did not vest to the compensation judge nor to this court additional jurisdiction to decide legal questions governed by laws, including criminal laws, outside of the WCA.  We decline to do so and conclude that this is best addressed by a court of broader jurisdiction.  To the extent the compensation judge interpreted and applied federal law, we reject her analysis and strike Findings 1-9.  However, because the state law questions can be resolved on the stipulated facts and on Finding 10, we affirm the result reached.

[1] Minn. Stat. § 175A.01, subd. 5, states that this court has jurisdiction for “all questions of law and fact arising under the workers' compensation laws of the state.”  The statute further provides that we do not have jurisdiction “in any case that does not arise under the workers' compensation laws of the state or in any criminal case.”  Id.  In fact, the ramifications of this court adopting the preemption argument by the employer and insurer would be to invalidate the MCTRA in its entirety, something clearly beyond our jurisdiction.