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United States-South Africa Leadership Exchange Program v. District of Columbia Department of Employment Services

November 07, 2002

UNITED STATES-SOUTH AFRICA LEADERSHIP EXCHANGE PROGRAM, PETITIONER,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT.



Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services

Before Farrell and Reid, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Nebeker

Opinion and judgment vacated June 24, 2003.

UNITED STATES-SOUTH AFRICA LEADERSHIP EXCHANGE PROGRAM, PETITIONER,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT.

Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services

Jason C. Schwartz for petitioner.

Michael A. Milwee for respondent.

Before Farrell and Reid, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Nebeker

Argued June 11, 2002

Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge FARRELL at p. 7.

Petitioner United States-South Africa Leadership Exchange Program (USSALEP) appeals a final decision of the Department of Employment Services Office of Appeals and Review (DOES) affirming the appeals examiner's decision to hold it liable for unemployment benefits previously paid to Dr. Richard Betz without notice to petitioner. This case presents the question whether the final decision of DOES - that claimant was discharged through no fault of his own - was made in accordance with law. *fn1 We reverse.

I.

Dr. Betz was hired by the United States-South Africa Leadership Exchange Program (USSALEP) as a Project Manager for a specific project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USSALEP and Dr. Betz entered into an employment contract in 1994. The contract did not specify a termination date; however, it was understood by the parties that the expiration of the USAID funding agreement would end his responsibilities under the project agreement. Dr. Betz and USSALEP signed a new employment contract, dated October 1, 1996, reducing the number of days required to be worked each year. Dr. Betz worked until the termination of the USAID contract on June 28, 1997.

Dr. Betz applied for and received unemployment benefits from DOES. USSALEP did not receive notice that Dr. Betz applied for benefits, until they were billed by the DOES tax office for unemployment benefits that had already been disbursed. USSALEP, a tax-exempt organization under section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, had elected to "opt out" of unemployment insurance coverage under District of Columbia law. Hence it would be required to reimburse the Department for the amount of the award if Dr. Betz was entitled to benefits.

USSALEP contested the award of unemployment benefits and DOES granted a hearing to determine the employment relationship that existed between Dr. Betz and USSALEP. The lack of notice was cured by the hearing. During the hearing, testimony was elicited from Dr. Betz and Robert Hoen, the Executive Director of USSALEP. Dr. Betz testified that he neither quit nor was fired, and that he knew in advance that the end of the project would terminate his employment. Mr. Hoen testified that claimant left voluntarily at the end of the contract. The hearing examiner found that "the record shows that claimant was discharged due to the project ending," hence that Dr. Betz "remain[ed] eligible for receipt of unemployment compensation benefits." DOES affirmed the appeals examiner's decision stating: "The record evidence indicates that at the hearing, Employer and Claimant both agreed that the contract for hire had expired. Thus, the Hearing Examiner could reasonably conclude that Claimant was separated from his most recent work through no fault of his own."

II.

While findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are binding on a reviewing court, and deference to the responsible administrator as to statutory interpretation is a must for such a court, questions of law are for the court. See Thomas v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 409 A.2d 164, 169 (D.C. 1979) ("[W]e are not obliged to stand aside and affirm an administrative determination which reflects a misconception of the relevant law or a faulty application of the law."). Under the facts of this case, we review the final decision of DOES - that claimant was discharged through no fault of his own - as a matter of faulty application of law.

Petitioner argues that an employee whose termination occurs pursuant to mutually agreed terms of an employment contract voluntarily terminates his employment so as to be ineligible for unemployment compensation. Voluntariness means "voluntary in fact, within the ordinary meaning of that term" and voluntariness is "determined by reference to whether the employee's action was compelled by the employer rather than based on the employee's volition." Hockaday v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 443 A.2d 8, 10 (D.C. 1982) (internal quotation and citation omitted). While a presumption that an employee leaves involuntarily is a matter of relevance in most cases, under the circumstances of this case, the presumption is not applicable since the relationship was mutually created with a third party funding source for a specific project. Voluntariness is addressed by the court on a case by case basis. See Cervantes v. Administrator, ...


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