Factual and Procedural Posture
On January 29, 2006, while employed by Wisconsin Central, Ltd., Daniel Ansello (“employee”) suffered a low-back injury while performing longshoreman work, including loading and unloading ships at port at the Duluth Ore Docks. The employee began medical treatment for his injury the day after his accident and had his first low back surgery approximately one month later. Eight months after that, he returned to work, but his condition worsened and he had a second low-back surgery on April 22, 2009. He received indemnity and medical expense benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“Longshore Act”) from Wisconsin Central and its insurance carrier under the Longshore Act, Signal Mutual Indemnity Association. He returned to work a year after the second surgery but again his symptoms worsened and he had a third surgery in September 2014. Signal Mutual denied payment for the third surgery based on an independent medical examiner’s opinion that the surgery was not reasonable or necessary treatment. Signal Mutual paid for certain medical expenses following the third surgery, including physical therapy.
On April 30, 2015, the employee filed a request with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings seeking payment of medical expenses under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act related to the third surgery and consequential treatment as well as out-of-pocket treatment expenses.
The compensation judge dismissed the employee’s claims. The compensation judge concluded the employee could not seek benefits under the Minnesota Act because the Longshore Act could fully compensate him, and determined the court lacked jurisdiction. The compensation judge also invoked the doctrine of forum non conveniens, reasoning that proceeding under the Longshore Act would provide a more convenient forum for the employee’s claims than Minnesota’s workers’ compensation courts.
The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (“WCCA”) reversed. The WCCA held that the compensation judge’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction was contrary to the law and that the compensation judge lacked authority to dismiss the claims under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. The employer and insurer appealed.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reviewed the jurisdiction issue de novo and the forum non conveniens issue for an abuse of discretion.
The Supreme Court affirmed the WCCA’s opinion that the compensation judge’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction was contrary to the law. Relying on Sun Ship, Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715 (1980), the Supreme Court noted that “there is concurrent jurisdiction between the Longshore Act and state workers’ compensation laws for injuries covered under more than one law.” Further, citing Sun Ship, the Supreme Court noted an employee would not receive double recovery because awards under once compensation scheme would be credited against recovery under the second scheme. Additionally, an employee could be eligible to receive both Longshore Act and Minnesota Act benefits. Jacobson v. Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Ry., 458 N.W.2d 107 (Minn. 1990). The Minnesota Act does not contain a provision that prohibits an employee from receiving compensation under state law if the employee’s injury is also covered by the Longshore Act, but it does contain a provision that prohibits an employee from receiving compensation benefits under state law if he or she pursues workers’ compensation claims in another state. Finally, the Supreme Court also noted that “[n]othing in the Act extends to the Longshore Act, and Jacobson specifically states that jurisdiction runs concurrently.” Therefore, it upheld the WCCA’s determination that the Employee could seek compensation under both the Longshore Act as well as the Minnesota Act.
Forum Non Conveniens
The Supreme Court determined that the doctrine of forum non conveniens is not an appropriate theory in this case. Typically, this doctrine is applicable when the two possible forums are across borders. In this case, the choice is between two judges in different courts in Duluth. The Supreme Court opined that “[e]ven if the compensation judge had authority to dismiss the employee’s claims on these grounds, the compensation judge’s conclusion that Minnesota is an inconvenient forum is an abuse of discretion because it is contrary to the law.” There is a strong presumption established by case law in favor of the plaintiff’s choice of forum. This presumption is strong when the plaintiff is a resident of the chosen forum, as was the case here. Further, the administrative difficulties relied on by the compensation judge were insufficient to rebut the presumption.