Merrill v. Mille Lacs Band Family Services et. Al.

Merrill v. Mille Lacs Band Family Services et. Al., No. WC20-6347 (W.C.C.A October 15, 2020)

The Employee was an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and on February 19, 2019 was working for the Mille Lacs Band Family Services. On the date of injury, the Employee slipped on ice on a mat at an entryway to the work premises. The Employee experienced low back and neck pain to which he attributed to twisting while trying to prevent a fall. The Employee underwent conservative treatment.

The Employee filed a claim in the workers’ compensation system of the Mille Lacs Band. The injury was admitted and the Employer paid benefits including wage loss benefits.

An IME was conducted and the report opined the Employee suffered a temporary injury which resolved by May 19, 2019, the Employee did not suffer any permanent partial disability, need further treatment, or have any restrictions. The Employer discontinued benefits relying on this report. The Employee did not appeal the discontinuance and maintained he could not find an attorney admitted to practice before tribal court.

The Employee filed a Claim Petition with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry seeking benefits under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act. The Employee filed an amended claim petition with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings. The Employer filed a motion to dismiss with prejudice for lack of jurisdiction. The Compensation Judge dismissed the claim petition and the Employee appealed.

The Employee argued the manner in which the Mille Lacs Band workers’ compensation system operates effectively waives immunity from claims under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act, or in the alternative that Minnesota law preempts the Mille Lacs Band sovereign status. The Employer asserted there was no express or implied waiver of immunity.

The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals found for the Employer. The doctrine of sovereign immunity generally leaves a state with no power unless congress or the tribe has waived its immunity.

Takeaway: Unless congress or a tribe has waived its immunity, such employers are not subject to the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act.