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Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Services

October 1, 2009

WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, PETITIONER,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, RESPONDENT, AND KELLY MILLHOUSE, INTERVENOR.



On Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services. (CRB85-06).

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

Argued December 18, 2008

Before RUIZ, FISHER and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges.

Petitioner seeks reversal of a decision of the Compensation Review Board (CRB) of the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) which affirmed the Compensation Order of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Terri Thompson Mallett awarding temporary total disability benefits to intervenor, Kelly Millhouse. We agree with the CRB's interpretation that the workers' compensation statute's one-year limitation on requests for modification did not bar claimant's timely filed new claim even if benefits had previously been awarded with respect to the same work-related accident, but for a different injury. We therefore affirm the decision of the CRB.

I. Statement of Facts

On July 14, 1993, Ms. Millhouse injured her back while taking part in a physical agility test, a test necessary for her to be considered for a promotion to the position of revenue attendant with her employer, petitioner Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Millhouse v. WMATA (Millhouse I), No. 95-348, slip op. at 3 (Hearings & Adjudications Section, Dec. 1, 1995), available at 1995 DC Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 45. Ms. Millhouse was unable to work from July 29, 1995, through September 10, 1995, during which time she underwent surgery to correct the herniation of three of her lumbar discs. See id. The ALJ determined that this injury occurred in the course of her employment with WMATA, and she was awarded medical expenses as well as temporary total disability benefits until she returned to work. See id. at 7.

Since then, Ms. Millhouse has filed two applications for formal hearings. The first, on or about February 9, 1996, was resolved by the parties without a hearing. Millhouse v. WMATA (Millhouse II), No. 95-348B, slip op. at 2 (Administrative Hearings Division, Aug. 16, 2006), available at 2006 DC Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 292. Ten years later, on April 10, 2006, she filed a claim for a new injury she said was caused by her accident at work on July 14, 1993.*fn1 Id. Ms. Millhouse was again awarded temporary total disability benefits, from March 9, 2006, to the present and continuing, in a compensation order, see Millhouse II, slip op. at 2, 6, which the CRB affirmed. See Millhouse v. WMATA (Millhouse III), No. 06-085, slip op. at 7 (Compensation Review Board July 20, 2007), available at 2007 DC Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 293.

Petitioner does not contest that claimant's current disability was caused by the 1993 work injury. The sole issue before the CRB, and the one now before us, is whether, under the District of Columbia Workers' Compensation Act of 1979, D.C. Code § 32-1501(2001) ("the Act"), a claimant may initiate a new claim for disability benefits for a new injury that arises from a work-related accident for which a claim had previously been filed, or whether a claimant is restricted to filing a claim for modification pursuant to D.C. Code § 32-1524 (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 36-324 (1981), which imposes a one-year limitation from either the date of the last payment of compensation or the rejection of a claim. We agree with the CRB that where a claimant files a new claim, he or she is not subject to the one-year limitation on requests for modification. Rather, pursuant to D.C. Code § 32-1514 (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 36-314 (1981), a claimant may file a new claim so long as that claim is not barred by the doctrine of res judicata and otherwise complies with the timeliness requirements set forth in that section.

II. Analysis

This court must affirm an agency's decision unless it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." D.C. Code § 2-510 (a)(3)(A) (2001). "We . . . defer to an agency's interpretation of a statute . . . it is charged with implementing if it is reasonable in light of the language of the statute . . ., the legislative history, and judicial precedent." Travelers Indemnity Co. of Ill. v. D.C. Dep't of Employment Servs., 975 A.2d 823, 826 (D.C. 2009) (citing WMATA v. D.C. Dep't of Employment Servs., 825 A.2d 292, 294 (D.C. 2003)). The legislative history makes clear that "the workers' compensation statutes should be liberally construed to achieve their humanitarian purpose." Vieira v. D.C. Dep't of Employment Servs., 721 A.2d 579, 584 (D.C. 1998).

In affirming the ALJ's Compensation Order, the CRB concluded that "because [claimant did] not seek modification of the prior award . . . [the one-year limitation in section 32-1524] does not apply." Millhouse III, slip op. at 4. As the CRB clarified in a subsequent decision, "the Act creates a specific procedure to revisit issues previously decided by a compensation order," and affirmed an ALJ's award of benefits to a claimant who had "developed a new symptom . . . causally related to his work injury and [had] ma[de] a new claim for medical treatment to address a new disabling condition that was not 'previously decided.'" Hartgrove v. Aramark Corp., No. 09-015, slip op. at 9-10 (Compensation Review Board January 26, 2009), available at 2009 DC Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 6. Specifically, the CRB was "of the opinion that Petitioner's request for medical treatment in the instant matter constitutes a new claim and thus is not a request to modify the prior Compensation Order." Id.

WMATA argues that the CRB's interpretation is wrong, and that our decision in Short v. D.C. Dep't of Employment Servs., 723 A.2d 845 (D.C. 1998), and subsequent cases require application of the one-year limitation for modifications of awards set out in D.C. Code § 32-1524 to any further claim for disability benefits following an accident at work where a compensation claim has already been made and adjudicated. WMATA's position, in other words, is that section 32-1524 provides "the sole remedy where an employee seeks reinstatement of the same type of benefits previously awarded due to a new period of disability."

Section 32-1524, provides:

(a) At any time prior to 1 year after the date of the last payment of compensation or at any time prior to 1 year after the rejection of a claim, provided, however, that in the case of a claim filed pursuant to ยง 32-1508(3)(V) [for schedule awards] the time period shall be at any time prior to 3 years after the date of the last payment of compensation or at any time prior to 3 years after the rejection of a claim, the Mayor may, upon his own initiative or upon application of a party in interest, order a review of a compensation case pursuant to the ...


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