Musta v. Mendota Heights Dental Ctr.

CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota (US)
Decision Date13 October 2021
Docket NumberA20-1551
PartiesSusan K. Musta, Respondent, v. Mendota Heights Dental Center & Hartford Insurance Group, Relators.

Susan K. Musta, Respondent,

Mendota Heights Dental Center & Hartford Insurance Group, Relators.

No. A20-1551

Supreme Court of Minnesota

October 13, 2021

Office of Appellate Courts

Cheri M. Sisk, Thomas D. Mottaz, Mottaz & Sisk Injury Law, Coon Rapids, Minnesota, for respondent.

William M. Hart, Julia Nierengarten, Meagher & Geer, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Kassi Erickson Grove, Law Offices of Steven G. Piland, Overland Park, Kansas, for relators.

Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Liz Kramer, Solicitor General, Jeffrey K. Boman, Rachel Bell-Munger, Assistant Attorneys General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae State of Minnesota.

Beth A. Butler, Kristine L. Cook, Peterson, Logren & Kilbury, P.A., Roseville, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association.


1. Because resolving a claim asserting that a conflict exists between federal law that prohibits cannabis possession and state law that requires an employer to pay for an injured employee's reasonable and necessary medical treatment would require the Workers Compensation Court of Appeals to interpret and apply federal law, that court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to decide the preemption issue presented by that claim.

2. The prohibition in the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 801-971, on the possession of cannabis preempts an order made under Minnesota's workers' compensation law, Minn. Stat. § 176.135, subd. 1 (2020), that requires an employer to reimburse an injured employee for the cost of medical cannabis used to treat a work-related injury.



The question presented here is whether the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. §§ 801-971, which makes the possession of cannabis a federal crime, preempts provisions of the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act that make an employer liable for an injured employee's cost of treating a work-related injury. More specifically, does the statutory requirement for an employer to "furnish any medical . . . treatment," reasonably necessary to treat a work-related injury, Minn. Stat. § 176.135, subd. 1 (2020), conflict with federal law that prohibits the possession of cannabis when the employer would be required to pay for the expense of treatment using medical cannabis? If federal law preempts state law in this specific instance, then an employer cannot be ordered to reimburse an injured employee for the cost of medical cannabis used to treat the effects of a work-related injury.

Respondent Susan Musta was injured while working for her employer, relator Mendota Heights Dental Center (Mendota Heights). After multiple rounds of medical intervention were unsuccessful, Musta's doctor certified her for participation in Minnesota's medical cannabis program. Musta then sought reimbursement for the cost of the medical cannabis from Mendota Heights, which agrees that medical cannabis is a reasonable and necessary treatment for Musta's chronic pain. Mendota Heights asserted, however, that the federal prohibition in the CSA on the possession of cannabis preempts the requirement under Minnesota's workers' compensation laws for an employer to pay for an injured employee's medical treatment when that treatment is medical cannabis. The Workers Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) declined to address the preemption argument, concluding that it did not have the subject matter jurisdiction to do so, and then upheld the compensation judge's order requiring Mendota Heights to reimburse Musta for medical cannabis.

We conclude that the WCCA lacks subject matter jurisdiction to determine the preemption issue presented in this case because it requires the interpretation and application of federal law. We further conclude that the CSA preempts an order made under Minn. Stat. § 176.135, subd. 1, that obligates an employer to reimburse an employee for the cost of medical cannabis because compliance with that order would expose the employer to criminal liability under federal law for aiding and abetting Musta's unlawful possession of cannabis. We therefore reverse the decision of the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals.


Musta was employed by Mendota Heights[1] as a dental hygienist when she suffered a work-related neck injury in February 2003. Musta received conservative care, including chiropractic treatment, medication management, physical therapy, and injection therapy. She then underwent surgery in November 2003 and August 2006, which provided some temporary relief. She was ultimately prescribed medication to manage the continuing pain, including Vicodin and fentanyl. In late 2009, Musta discontinued using narcotics to treat her pain because of the side effects. At this point, Musta was permanently and totally disabled.

In April 2019, after she was certified as eligible to participate in the state's medical cannabis program, Musta began using medical cannabis, in compliance with the THC Therapeutic Research Act (THC Act), Minn. Stat. §§ 152.21-.37 (2020), to treat her work-related injury. She then requested reimbursement for the cost of that treatment from Mendota Heights under Minn. Stat. § 176.135, subd. 1 (2020). In the proceedings before the compensation judge, the parties stipulated that Musta's use of medical cannabis complies with the THC Act and is reasonable, medically necessary, and causally related to her work injury. Mendota Heights opposed Musta's request for reimbursement, however, asserting before the compensation judge that paying for someone to possess cannabis is prohibited by federal law, specifically the CSA. Thus, the sole issue before the workers' compensation judge was whether the CSA preempts the employer reimbursement requirement in Minnesota's workers' compensation laws when that reimbursement is for medical cannabis.

Cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance-the most restrictive level-and therefore cannot be lawfully prescribed. 21 U.S.C. § 812(c)(c)(10). Federal law provides that a Schedule I controlled substance has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and lacks accepted safety for use of the substance under medical supervision. 21 U.S.C. § 812(b)(1). The CSA makes it a federal crime to possess a controlled substance knowingly or intentionally without a valid prescription. 21 U.S.C. § 844(a).[2] Anyone guilty of such an offense may be sentenced up to one year in prison and fined at least $1, 000. Id. And anyone who aids and abets a federal crime is liable to the same extent as the principal. 18 U.S.C. § 2(a).

The compensation judge declined to resolve the issue of preemption, recommending instead to the Chief Administrative Law Judge that the question be certified to us. The Chief ALJ did so, but we declined to accept the certified question, stating that "the legal issue presented by this workers' compensation matter is best addressed through the decision process established by the Legislature." Musta v. Mendota Heights Dental Ctr., No. A19-1365, Order at 2 (Minn. filed Oct. 16, 2019).

On remand, the compensation judge then analyzed the preemption issue. The judge observed that use of medical cannabis is legal under Minnesota law, and nothing in the workers' compensation laws prohibits reimbursement for medical cannabis when used to treat a work-related injury. Further, the judge noted that ongoing congressional appropriations riders prohibit the United States Department of Justice from criminally prosecuting an act that is compliant with a state's medical cannabis laws. The compensation judge stated that a federal prosecution would "prevent Minnesota from implementing its own laws" regarding medical cannabis use. Thus, the compensation judge concluded, there was no risk that Mendota Heights would be criminally prosecuted under federal law, and therefore no preemptive conflict between federal law and Minnesota law existed. Mendota Heights was accordingly required to reimburse Musta for her medical cannabis expenses.

The Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals affirmed. Musta v. Mendota Heights Dental Ctr., No. WC19-6330, 2020 WL 6799288 (Minn. WCCA Nov. 10, 2020). The WCCA concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the preemption issue because it "would need to interpret and apply laws beyond the Workers' Compensation Act and beyond [its] limited jurisdiction." Id. at *3. Instead, the WCCA believed that the preemption issue was "best addressed by a court of broader jurisdiction." Id. Thus, the court rejected the compensation judge's analysis on that issue and struck certain findings made regarding federal law. But, concluding that the legal question-the employer's reimbursement liability-could be resolved based on the stipulated facts and the remaining findings, the WCCA affirmed the award of reimbursement. Mendota Heights appealed to us by writ of certiorari.


This case presents two issues. First, we must determine whether the WCCA correctly concluded that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction to decide whether federal law- the CSA-preempts Minnesota law that requires an employer to reimburse an employee for treatment of a work-related injury. Second, we must determine whether the CSA preempts the requirement in Minnesota law for an employer to reimburse an injured employee for the cost of medical treatment when the treatment for which payment is sought is medical cannabis.


We begin with jurisdiction. "The subject matter jurisdiction of the workers' compensation courts is a question of law," which we review de novo. Giersdorf v. A & M Constr., Inc., 820 N.W.2d 16, 20 (Minn. 2012). "Subject matter jurisdiction is the court's authority to hear the type of dispute at issue and to grant the type of relief sought." Seehus v. Bor-Son Constr., Inc., 783 N.W.2d 144, 147 (Minn. 2010). The WCCA "is a tribunal of limited jurisdiction, restricted by...

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