On Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services.
Before Steadman and Washington, Associate Judges, and Pryor, Senior Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge
Petitioner Providence Hospital ("Providence") seeks review of a decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services ("DOES") requiring Providence to pay intervenor Veronica Gourzong-Rose's ("Gourzong-Rose") attorney's fees pursuant to D.C. Code § 32-1530 (b) (2001). Providence contends that the DOES erred in awarding*fn2 attorney's fees under § 32-1530 (b), arguing that the agency's decision was contrary to the plain language of the statute. Specifically, Providence argues that an award of attorney's fees under § 32-1530 (b) is contingent upon a specific sequence of events, including an employer's rejection of the Mayor's written recommendation in the case. Providence contends that, because it did not reject the Mayor's recommendation in this case, Gourzong-Rose was not entitled to attorney's fees. We agree with Providence and hold that § 32-1530 (b) requires that an employer/insurer reject the Mayor's recommendation before attorney's fees may be awarded to the claimant. Because it was the claimant in this case, and not the employer, who rejected the Mayor's recommendation, the DOES' decision to affirm an award of attorney's fees was plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the statute and with our prior case law. See National Geographic Soc'y v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 721 A.2d 618 (D.C. 1998). Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the DOES and remand the case with directions to modify the award to conform to this opinion.*fn3
In 2000, Gourzong-Rose sought compensation benefits from her employer Providence for back injuries she sustained during her tenure as a critical care technician at the hospital. Providence accepted Gourzong-Rose's claim for compensation and paid her temporary total disability benefits. In an effort to seek additional benefits, however, Gourzong-Rose filed a claim and requested an informal conference with the Office of Workers' Compensation. On October 10, 2000, a few weeks after an informal conference was held, a claims examiner issued a written recommendation denying Gourzong-Rose her claim for additional benefits. Gourzong-Rose then rejected the recommendation and requested a formal hearing with the Office of Hearings and Adjudications.
On March 15, 2001, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a Compensation Order awarding Gourzong-Rose temporary partial disability. The ALJ ordered Providence "to pay the above-referenced compensation in addition to the compensation that it had already voluntarily paid to Claimant in connection with her work injury." On September 14, 2001, Gourzong-Rose's counsel petitioned for attorney's fees pursuant to § 32-1530 (b). When asked to show cause why attorney's fees should not be granted, Providence argued that the circumstances in this case did not fall within the parameters of § 32-1530 (b). On January 10, 2002, the ALJ issued an order awarding attorney's fees to Gourzong-Rose. Providence filed an application for review of the ALJ's order with the Office of the Director of DOES.
On January 17, 2003, the Director affirmed the ALJ's order. In his decision, the Director interpreted § 32-1530 (b) according to what he thought was its plain meaning, stating, "it is apparent that the purpose of this code provision is to enable an employee to recover attorney's fees in the event that she successfully engages in litigation for the purpose of obtaining additional compensation (above and beyond any initial voluntarily-paid compensation)." The Director rejected Providence's interpretation of the statute, because in his view, Providence's interpretation would have rendered superfluous a later portion of the statute, which provides that:
If the employee refuses to accept such payment or tender of compensation and thereafter utilizes the services of an attorney-at-law, and if the compensation thereafter awarded is greater than the amount paid or tendered by the employer or carrier, a reasonable attorney's fee based solely upon the difference between the amount awarded and the amount tendered or paid shall be awarded in addition to the amount of compensation.
D.C. Code § 32-1530 (b). Because in his view, Providence's interpretation could not be reconciled with this provision of the statute, the Director affirmed the ALJ's decision. Providence appeals to this court.
Our review of administrative agency decisions is limited. See Oubre v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 630 A.2d 699, 702 (D.C. 1993). We must affirm an agency decision unless it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Clark v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 772 A.2d 198, 201 (D.C. 2001). We will not disturb an agency ruling as long as the decision flows rationally from the facts, and the facts are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Oubre, 630 A.2d at 702.
In our review of DOES decisions, we review the decision of the Director, not the hearing examiner. See St. Clair v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 658 A.2d 1040, 1044 (D.C. 1995). We review the Director's legal conclusions de novo. See Mills v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 838 A.2d 325, 329 (D.C. 2003). "Recognizing agency expertise, however, we accord great weight to any reasonable construction of a statute by the agency charged with its administration." Id. "The interpretation of the agency is binding unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the enabling statute." Lee v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 509 ...