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Hiligh v. Dist. of Columbia Dep't of Employment Services

November 8, 2007

WILBUR HILIGH, PETITIONER, FEDERALEXPRESSCORPORATION, ET AL., PETITIONERS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT.



Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services (CRB 36-05).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge

Argued February 13, 2007

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, FARRELL, Associate Judge, and SCHWELB, Senior Judge.

Petitioner, Wilbur Hiligh, seeks review, inter alia, of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services' ("DOES") determination that Hiligh, who is classified as temporarily totally disabled, was not entitled to the minimum compensation rate, pursuant to D.C. Code § 32-1505 (c) (2001), but instead to his actual average weekly wage. The employer, Federal Express Corporation ("Federal Express"), in its petition, argues that DOES erred because the D.C. Code mandates Hiligh's compensation rate to be no more than two-thirds of his actual average weekly wage. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

I.

Hiligh slipped and fell on the edge of a metal loading ramp, injuring himself in the testicles, penis, and groin area on January 31, 1997, while performing his duties as a part-time package handler with Federal Express. Hiligh sought immediate medical treatment and did not return to work until October 1997 due to his physical injuries.*fn1 Hiligh worked in his usual occupation with Federal Express until December 1997, when he was terminated due to excessive tardiness.

In December of 1998, a year after Federal Express terminated him, Hiligh presented to Dr. Lawrence Sank, Ph.D., a psychologist. Dr. Sank evaluated Hiligh and identified significant distress that related to his workplace injury. Dr. Sank diagnosed Hiligh with major depressive disorder, erectile dysfunction, and dysparuenia.*fn2 He concluded that Hiligh's condition impaired his ability to function at work (and elsewhere). Dr. Sank found Hiligh to be totally disabled from working and recommended both psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacologic interventions prior to his return to work. Federal Express then requested that Dr. Bruce Smoller, a psychiatrist, evaluate Hiligh's psychological condition. Dr. Smoller diagnosed Hiligh with clinical depression and noted that he needed further psychiatric treatment. Dr. Smoller found the depression related -- at least in part -- to the workplace injury and opined that Hiligh could return to work part-time for three weeks, but could return to work full time thereafter.

On December 23, 2004, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that Hiligh was not entitled to temporary total disability benefits from December 20, 1997, for his physical injuries, as he concluded that Hiligh's excessive tardiness -- the reason Federal Express fired him -- was unrelated to his workplace injury. The ALJ found, however, that Federal Express should pay temporary total disability benefits to Hiligh from December 29, 1998, to the present and continuing for his psychological injuries that had manifested later. The ALJ concluded that Federal Express should pay Hiligh benefits equal to his average weekly wage at the time of his termination. In doing so, the ALJ rejected Hiligh's argument that he was entitled to the minimum compensation rate because his actual average weekly wage was less than the statutory minimum. The ALJ reasoned that D.C. Code § 32-1505 (c) only provides minimum compensation for those claimants who are permanently totally disabled and because Hiligh was only temporarily totally disabled, the minimum compensation rate did not apply.

Both Hiligh and Federal Express filed administrative appeals, and the Compensation Review Board ("Board") affirmed on all issues except that it concluded that Hiligh's compensation rate should be his average weekly wage earned at the time he incurred his workplace injury and not at the time of his termination, and that the ALJ erred in finding that Federal Express had not provided rehabilitation and suitable alternative employment to Hiligh.

II.

This court will affirm a decision by an administrative agency when the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is otherwise in accordance with applicable law. Marriott Int'l v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 834 A.2d 882, 885 (D.C. 2003) (internal citations omitted). This court reviews DOES's legal conclusions de novo, but defers to an agency's reasonable interpretation of the statute it is charged with administering. Providence Hosp. v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 855 A.2d 1108, 1111 (D.C. 2004). "Recognizing agency expertise . . . we accord great weight to any reasonable construction of a statute by the agency charged with its administration." Mills v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 838 A.2d 325, 329 (D.C. 2003). The agency's interpretation is binding unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the enabling statute. Providence Hosp., 855 A.2d at 1111.

Hiligh's primary argument is that the statutory minimum compensation rate set forth in D.C. Code § 32-1505 (c) applies to both permanent and temporary total disability claims. Section 32-1505 (c) of the D.C. Code states, "[t]he minimum compensation for total disability or death shall be 25% of the maximum compensation." Although Hiligh argued that the term "total disability" was clear and applied to both permanent total disability claims and temporary total disability claims, the Board disagreed. The Board first confirmed that DOES had addressed whether the minimum compensation rate applied to temporary total disability claims in prior cases, but that the Director had reached inconsistent conclusions. The Board noted that those cases had been decided prior to the establishment of the Compensation Review Board,*fn3 and therefore, were only persuasive authority. See 7 DCMR § 255.7 (2005). Concerned that those cases "ha[d] not proved to be elucidating and ha[d] instead caused confusion," the Board decided "to begin anew" its analysis of whether D.C. Code § 32-1505 (c)'s minimum compensation rate applied to temporary total disability claims.

In its analysis, the Board began by reviewing principles of statutory construction as set forth by both the Supreme Court and this court. The Board correctly noted that where the statute's language is plain and unambiguous, the plain meaning is binding, see Hudson Trail Outfitters v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 801 A.2d 987, 990 (D.C. 2002), but that courts will look to legislative history to resolve ambiguities. See generally District of Columbia v. Acme Reporting Co., 530 A.2d 708, 712 (D.C. 1987) (internal quotation omitted) (acknowledging that where the statutory language is ambiguous, we examine the statute's legislative history for assistance).

In applying these principles of statutory construction to D.C. Code § 32-1505 (c), the Board concluded that while the term "total disability" appeared to be clear, the statute is susceptible to alternative constructions because the Act defines two distinct types of total disability: permanent total disability and temporary total disability.*fn4 D.C. Code §§ 32-1508 (1) & (2) (2001). The Board then turned to the statute's legislative history and determined that it resolved the matter of interpretation. The section-by-section analysis included in the Committee Report states that the provision at issue "establishes minimum compensation for Total Permanent Disability or death . . . . " REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON HOUSING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, Bill 3-106 at 14 (January 29, 1980) (REPORT) (emphasis added). Thus, the Board concluded that the Council's intent to provide minimum compensation only for permanent total disability was clear.*fn5 Given the thoughtful analysis by the Board of the statute it is charged with administering, along with the language of the legislative history, we are ...


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