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06/07/91 EUGENE M. HARRIS v. DISTRICT COLUMBIA

June 7, 1991

EUGENE M. HARRIS, PETITIONER
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT. C & P TELEPHONE COMPANY, INTERVENOR



Petition for Review of an Order of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services

Rogers, Chief Judge. Ferren, Associate Judge. Dissenting opinion by Senior Judge Kern.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rogers

Petitioner Eugene M. Harris seeks review of the decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services ("the Agency") dismissing his claim for workers' compensation because it was barred by the statute of limitations. We reverse and remand because the Agency did not address whether petitioner received proper notice, in accordance with the District of Columbia Workers' Compensation Act, D.C. Code § 36-332 (f) (1988), that the employer had filed its report of injury.

I.

In 1977, Eugene M. Harris, petitioner, suffered a work-related injury while working as a supervisor-engineer in intervenor C & P Telephone Company's circuit provisioning center. As a result of this injury, petitioner's work activity was subject to medical restrictions and his employer assigned him to desk jobs. The petitioner's injury was aggravated in August 1983. He notified the employer of his injury at that time, and was given a new job assignment. In 1985, petitioner informed his supervisor that he had to leave his job because the work associated with his 1983 job assignment was, in his, opinion, aggravating his prior injury.

On June 23, 1986, the employer filed a report with the Agency pursuant to D.C. Code § 36-332 (a) (1988). *fn1 Apparently on that same day the employer also filed a notice of controversion of workers' compensation benefits. *fn2 The notice stated that the employer denied petitioner's claim for benefits due to petitioner's failure to notify his employer of "any new injuries until. . . approximately three (3) years after the alleged injury." The notice further stated that the employer's report was received June 18, 1986, and that if petitioner "had not already filed an employee's claim application, Form No. 7a DCWC, you must do so within one (1) year of the date of injury or one (1) year after the last payment of compensation benefits by your employer." The record does not reflect whether the employer sent a copy of the notice of controversion to petitioner. *fn3

On December 1, 1988, petitioner filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits with the Agency. After a hearing, the Hearing Examiner ruled that petitioner's claim was time barred because he had filed his claim in 1988 when his injury occurred in 1983, and had thus failed to file his claim within one year of sustaining his injury. Petitioner, pro se, appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the employer had failed to file its report with the Agency, citing D.C. Code § 36-332 and subsection (f). On appeal, the Director modified the Hearing Examiner's decision. The Director concluded that because the employer had failed to file a report within ten days of notice of the injury, the one year statute of limitations had not begun to run until June 23, 1986, when the employer had filed its report. *fn4 However, since petitioner had not filed his claim until 1988, more than one year after the employer had filed its report, the Director ruled that petitioner's claim was time barred.

II.

Petitioner, appearing pro se, contends in his brief that "no notifications" were sent, and that the employer "did not timely file." Accordingly, the principal issue on appeal is whether the employee must receive notice of the date that the employer filed its report with the Agency before the one-year limitations period in D.C. Code § 36-314 (a) could begin to run. This is a question of statutory interpretation, and although the court will defer to the Agency's reasonable interpretation of its enabling statute, see Morris v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 530 A.2d 683, 690 (D.C. 1987); Dell v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 499 A.2d 102, 106 (D.C. 1985), in order to dispose of this appeal, we must determine whether the premise underlying the Agency's decision that the claim is barred by the limitations period is consistent with the statute. Cf. Ploufe v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 497 A.2d 464, 466 (D.C. 1985) (ambiguity of notice of first level of appeal rendered notice inadequate as a matter of law).

The District of Columbia Workers' Compensation Act (Act) provides that "the right to compensation for disability or death . . . shall be barred unless a claim therefor is filed within 1 year after the injury or death." D.C. Code § 36-314 (a). However, the time for filing a claim under this section does not begin to run "until the employee or beneficiary is aware, or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been aware, of the relationship between the injury or death and the employment." Id. Further, an employee's awareness of injury or death will not trigger the limitations period if the employer has not filed the report mandated by D.C. Code § 36-332. Under D.C. Code § 36-332 (a), the employer must, within ten days from the date of the injury, send the Agency a report on the circumstances of the injury. *fn5 If the employer "fails, neglects, or refuses to file report [within ten days from the date of injury or death], the limitations in § 36-314 (a) shall not begin to run against the claim of the injured employee . . . until such report shall have been furnished as required by subsection (a) of [D.C. Code § 36-332]." Id. § 36-332 (f).

The statute does not expressly require that a copy of the employer's report be provided to the employee, nor that the one-year limitations period shall not commence until the employee has received notice the employer has filed its report. See note 5, (supra) . However, consistent with the humanitarian purposes of the Act, see Ferreira v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 531 A.2d 651, 655 (D.C. 1987) and cases cited, it necessarily follows that until the employee has notice that the employer's report has been filed with the Agency, the limitations period of § 36-314 (a) cannot begin to run. Cf. Kleiboemer v. District of Columbia, 458 A.2d 731, 735 (D.C. 1983) (look to legislative purpose in determining whether statute of limitations is tolled). This is clear from the statutory scheme and legislative history.

The Act requires that the Agency "on receiving the [employer's] report shall notify the injured employee of the employee's rights and obligations under [the Act]." D.C. Code § 36-332 (g). The Agency's duty under this provision would appear broad enough to require notification to the injured employee that the employer had filed its report, and that a claim must be filed within one year thereafter. Cf. D.C. Code § 36-320 (agency has duty to notify employer within ten days after claim is filed by employee). Moreover, the Act incorporates a discovery rule in defining the time within which a claim for benefits must be filed. Id. § 36-314 (a) ("The time for filing a claim shall not begin to run until the employee . . . is aware, or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been aware, of the relationship between the injury . . . and the employment"). Applying a notice requirement for the triggering event of the limitations period is consistent with the statutory scheme and necessary to assure that legitimate benefit claims are not denied. Otherwise, a meritorious compensation claim would be barred as a result of the effect of a triggering event of which the employee is unaware. Cf. Bussineau v. President and Directors of Georgetown College, 518 A.2d 423, 425 (D.C. 1986) (apply discovery rule where statute of limitations under D.C. Code § 12-301 is triggered by obscure event); 2B A. LARSON, WORKMEN'S COMPENSATION LAW, § 78.41 (b) (1989) ("The number of jurisdictions that are still capable of destroying compensation rights for failure to file a claim at a time when its existence could not reasonably have been known has dwindled"). In addition, the language of § 36-332 (f) is identical to the provision of the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) which has been interpreted strictly against the employer who fails to file injury reports as required by the statute. *fn6 See Grillo v. National Bank of Washington, 540 A.2d 743, 749 n.15 (D.C. 1988) (courts look to the federal interpretation of the LHWCA in interpreting the local workers' compensation statute).

This interpretation of the statutory scheme is consistent with the regulations promulgated under the Act by the Agency. Under the regulations, the limitations period does not begin to run until the employer has filed its report with the Agency. 7 DCMR § 203.3 (1986). A document is deemed to be filed only when it is either hand delivered or sent by registered or certified mail to the Agency, and a copy is sent to all interested parties. Id. § 228.2. The employee is defined under the regulations as an interested party. Id. § 299.1. Accordingly, unless the employer sent a copy of its report to the employee, the limitations period did not begin to run.

Petitioner contends now, as he did at the time of his intragency appeal, that the employer had failed to file its report in accordance with D.C. Code § 36-332 and specifically referenced, in his intra-agency appeal, subsection (f), which tolls his time for filing a claim until the employer has filed its report. In the absence of a finding by the Agency with respect to when petitioner received notice that the employer had filed its report, we are unable to determine whether his claim was time barred or whether petitioner was lulled into inaction. See Spellman v. Am. Sec. Bank, 504 A.2d 1119, 1124 (D.C. 1986). In denying petitioner's claim, the Agency did not address whether he had received notice that the employer had filed its report. See Dankman v. District of Columbia Bd. of Elections and Ethics, 443 A.2d 507, 513 (D.C. 1981) (en banc) (agency must follow its regulations). The Director merely concluded that since the employer filed its report on June 26, 1986, and petitioner did not file his claim until more than one year later, his claim was barred. Nothing in the record indicates whether the employer sent a copy of ...


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