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Colbert v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Services

October 11, 2007

SONYA COLBERT, PETITIONER,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT, AND JEWISH SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCY, ET AL., INTERVENORS.



Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services (CRB57-04).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Associate Judge

Argued July 18, 2007

Before KRAMER and FISHER, Associate Judges, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

After she was injured in an automobile accident, Sonya Colbert received workers' compensation benefits. She also sued the driver of the other car, agreed to submit that dispute to arbitration, and received an award of $87,500 in damages.

An Administrative Law Judge later held that Ms. Colbert had compromised her third party claim without her employer's authorization and therefore was barred from receiving further workers' compensation benefits for the effects of the accident. The Compensation Review Board affirmed, and Ms. Colbert petitioned for review. We affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Petitioner Sonya Colbert worked for the Jewish Social Service Agency as a homemaker, assisting the elderly with "their daily living activities such as cleaning, shopping, cooking, and taking medications . . . ." On February 3, 2000, she was driving to a client's home when she was "struck broadside on the driver's side by another automobile." She received temporary total and temporary partial disability benefits as a result of her work-related injuries.

On November 19, 2001, Ms. Colbert filed a civil complaint in the Superior Court against the driver of the other vehicle. The trial court referred the matter to mediation, but that effort was not successful, and the case was set for trial on July 11, 2003. Instead of going to trial, the parties agreed to submit the dispute to binding arbitration. They hired a retired judge from Prince George's County, Maryland, and presented their evidence to him over the course of three or four hours. Each party presented testimony and cross-examined the other side's witnesses, and Ms. Colbert presented documentary evidence. After closing arguments, the arbitrator awarded Ms. Colbert $87,500 in damages.

Ms. Colbert then turned to the administrative arena. After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge held that Ms. Colbert "ha[d] met her burden of establishing entitlement to permanent total disability benefits."However, the ALJ also concluded that by agreeing to submit the case to arbitration, Ms. Colbert had "compromised" her claim against the other driver, within the meaning of D.C. Code § 32-1535 (g) (2001). The employer did not have timely notice of the arbitration, nor did it give "written approval of such compromise." Id. Therefore, Ms. Colbert's "compromise of her third party claim without [the] employer's authorization bars her from receiving further compensation from the . . . employer for the February 3, 2000 automobile accident . . . ." However, Ms. Colbert was "entitled to reimbursement for causally related medical care." The CRB affirmed the ALJ's ruling that the arbitration was a compromise and that petitioner was barred from receiving further compensation.

II. Legal Analysis

This appeal presents an issue of first impression for this court -- whether agreeing to binding arbitration is a "compromise" of a claim for damages against a third person within the meaning of D.C. Code § 32-1535 (g) (2001). Indeed, the parties' briefs and our research have not identified any decision throughout the country which answers this question with respect to a comparable statutory provision.

"In reviewing an agency interpretation of a statute, this court follows the two-part test set out by the Supreme Court in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984)." Pannell-Pringle v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 806 A.2d 209, 211 (D.C. 2002) (citations omitted). "If the intent of [the legislature] is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of [the legislature]." Timus v. District of Columbia Dep't of Human Rights, 633 A.2d 751, 758 (D.C. 1993) (en banc) (quoting Chevron, 467 U.S. at 842-43). "If the statute is ambiguous, however, we must defer to the agency's interpretation of the statutory language so long as it is reasonable." Pannell-Pringle, 806 A.2d at 211. Accord, Cathedral Park Condominium Committee v. District of Columbia Zoning Commission, 743 A.2d 1231, 1239 (D.C. 2000) ("We will defer to the agency's interpretation of the statute and regulations it administers unless its interpretation is unreasonable or in contravention of the language or legislative history of the statute and/or regulations."). "'[W]e need not find that its construction is the only reasonable one, or even that it is the result we would have reached had the question arisen in the first instance in judicial proceedings.'" Bausch v. District of Columbia Police & Firefighters' Retirement & Relief Board, 926 A.2d 125, 129 (D.C. 2007) (quoting Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 16 (1965)).

D.C. Code ยง 32-1535 (2001), the statute at issue here, ...


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