What Do You Think: Did Va. Exclusivity Bar Section 504 Lawsuit?

23 Mar, 2023 Frank Ferreri

                               

Washington, DC (WorkersCompensation.com) -- For those who have hung around workers' compensation law awhile, the exclusive remedy concept seems pretty straightforward: If you get benefits under a state's workers' compensation law, you can't turn around and try to sue for some other legally available remedy.

However, what happens if a worker steps out of the realm of state tort law and dips into the world of federal civil rights law? Such was the question the District of Columbia's federal court recently had to consider.

A worker for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro, had a sleep disorder that made it difficult to work night shifts. Despite his request for an accommodation, the Metro assigned the worker to a midnight shift, and shortly thereafter, the worker sustained an injury to his lower back.

Although he received workers' compensation benefits under Virginia law, the worker attributed his workplace injury to the Metro's failure to accommodate his disability and brought action alleging violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a federal anti-discrimination law, for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate.

Under Virginia's workers' compensation law, which applied to the workers' claim, the exclusive remedy provision maintains that the rights and remedies conferred by the law exclude all other rights and remedies. Like exclusivity provisions in other states, Virginia's prohibits tort recovery for on-the-job injuries.

Did the exclusive remedy provision of Virginia workers' compensation law prevent the worker from suing under Section 504?

A. Yes. Since the worker received workers' compensation benefits, his remedies were limited to workers' compensation law.

B. No. The worker did not allege a tort suit, and a state statute cannot deprive a plaintiff of a cause of action afforded by federal law.

If you chose B, you agreed with the court in Collins v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, No. 1:22-cv-01385 (D.D.C. 03/15/23), which held that the worker's Section 504 claim could advance.

While the Metro cited cases where claims were precluded based on Virginia tort law, it offered no authority for the proposition that state workers' compnesation law could foreclose a cause of action arising under federal law.

Citing Worthington v. City of New Haven, 1999 WL 958627 (D. Conn. 10/05/99), the court explained that "a state law making recovery under a workers' compensation statute the exclusive remedy for work-related injuries cannot bar an employee from seeking relief for employment discrimination under the ADA or Section 504 in light of the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution."

As a result, the court denied the Metro's motion to dismiss.

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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