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St. Clair v. District of Columbia Dept. of Employment Services

May 31, 1995

RONALD ST. CLAIR, PETITIONER/APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT/APPELLEE, AND U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, INTERVENOR.



Before Wagner, Chief Judge,* and Ferren, Associate Judge, and Kern, Senior Judge. Opinion Per Curiam. Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge Ferren at p. 8.

PER CURIAM: Petitioner, Ronald St. Clair, seeks review of an order of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services (DOES or the agency) denying his request for reinstatement and back pay based on a claim of retaliatory discharge against his former employer, U.S. News & World Report (employer). In rendering the decision for the agency, its Director rejected a finding of retaliatory discharge made by a hearing examiner on the grounds that it was contrary to law and not supported by substantial evidence. We find no error in the Director's decision.

I.

Petitioner was a Senior Graphics Technician for U.S. News & World Report before being terminated on December 19, 1986. The employer gave petitioner a notice stating that he was discharged because of his physical inability to perform the job on a full-time basis. Petitioner had injured his left knee on July 17, 1986 while at work, and he was unable to work again until October 8, 1986, when he worked for only two days. He returned to work again on November 3, 1986. Petitioner requested a lighter work schedule, and his employer initially accommodated him. On November 21, 1986, petitioner's physician provided a disability certificate indicating that he should remain on light duty until further notice. Thereafter, on December 9, 1986, petitioner's supervisor informed him orally that he would be terminated as of December 19, 1986 because of his physical inability to work full-time, which the employer confirmed in writing on December 15, 1986. However, petitioner ceased working on December 15th, prior to the termination date, and never reported for work again.

It is undisputed that petitioner was working part-time in a full-time position at the time of discharge. The hearing examiner found that petitioner was temporarily partially disabled from November 3, 1986 until December 15, 1986 and totally disabled from December 15 until December 23, 1986. *fn1 Following the termination of his employment in December 1986, petitioner filed a claim of retaliatory discharge under D.C. Code § 36-342 (1993 Repl.).

The hearing examiner for DOES concluded that the employer engaged in retaliatory discharge. The factual predicate for this Conclusion, as set forth by the examiner in findings, is as follows:

Since the claimant in the instant case was reporting to work daily and working at the time of his termination within his physical restrictions, he was qualified to perform the duties of his employment and his termination was a retaliatory discharge.

No other factual basis is provided as support for the retaliatory discharge determination. *fn2

Apparently recognizing that this result might be precluded by Lyles v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 572 A.2d 81 (D.C. 1990), the examiner sought to distinguish it by pointing out that the employee in Lyles was unable to report to work at all, while petitioner was able to work part-time. The Director disagreed with the examiner's interpretation of the Act and the decision in Lyles, concluding as a matter of law that an employer can terminate an employee who files a claim under the Act without violating it, if the employee is unable to resume a full-time position. See D.C. Code § 36-342; see also Lyles, 572 A.2d at 84-85. The Director ruled alternatively that the examiner's findings were not supported by substantial evidence. Contrary to the examiner, the Director concluded, as a matter of law, that a showing that prior to discharge a claimant could work part-time in a full-time position was insufficient to establish a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge. We discern no error in the Director's decision.

II.

To establish a prima facie case for retaliatory discharge under D.C. Code § 36-342, the employee must prove: (1) that the claimant made or attempted to make a claim for workers' compensation, and (2) that the employer discharged him or her in retaliation for that action. Abramson Associates, Inc. v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 596 A.2d 549, 552 (D.C. 1991) (citing Lyles, supra, 572 A.2d at 83). The employer's motivation for the firing must be the employee's pursuit of his rights under the statute. Lyles, 572 A.2d at 84 (citing Geddes v. Benefits Review Bd., 236 U.S. App. D.C. 381, 384, 735 F.2d 1412, 1415 (1984)).

In Lyles, we held that the animus necessary to prove retaliatory discharge must entail more than discharge of an employee, even if unreasonable, for refusal to return to work. 572 A.2d at 84-85. "Some additional showing beyond the firing, such as evidence of a pattern and practice of discriminating against employees filing compensation claims" is required. Id. at 84; Dyson v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 566 A.2d 1065, 1066 n.7 (D.C. 1989). The Director's determination that the element of animus could not be satisfied, as the examiner found, by the mere fact that petitioner was able to work only part-time in a full-time position is consistent with these precedents. Petitioner argues that a finding of retaliation can be established because the employer knew that he was scheduled for a medical examination prior to termination which might possibly show that he would be able to resume work. However, the evidence was unrefuted that the employer never requested nor became aware of any scheduled medical examination prior to the termination notice. Moreover, there was no evidence in the record that the employer had any way of knowing what the results of an examination might be.

The Director determined that an employer's discharge of an employee solely because he could work only part-time in a full-time position does not entitle the employee to restoration and compensation under D.C. Code § 36-342. We have held that discharge of an injured employee who is unable to perform the work, even if unreasonable, is insufficient to establish a claim for retaliatory discharge under § 36-342. Lyles, supra, 572 A.2d at 84 n.6. The Director concluded that there was no valid reason to distinguish between the treatment accorded the claimant in Lyles, who claimed to be totally disabled, and petitioner who could work only part-time in a full-time position. The Director's interpretation of the statute that the remedy is not available on these facts, is reasonable in light of its plain language and in view of prevailing law; thus, we defer to it. *fn3 See Lyles, 572 A.2d at 84; Dyson, supra, 566 A.2d at 1067; see also Becker v. District of Columbia, 518 A.2d 93, 94 (D.C. 1986).

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the Directors decision is in accordance with the law and supported by substantial evidence; therefore, we affirm it. See King v. District of Columbia Dep't of ...


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