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Consumer Action Network, Petitioner v. Frances Tielman

August 16, 2012

CONSUMER ACTION NETWORK, PETITIONER,
v.
FRANCES TIELMAN, RESPONDENT.



On Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings (DOES-03015-10)

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

Argued April 11, 2012

Before FISHER and OBERLY, Associate Judges, and PRYOR, Senior Judge.

Frances Tielman voluntarily quit her job with Consumer Action Network after the organization cut her hours, and thus her wages, by twenty-five percent and reduced her employee benefits. An administrative law judge (ALJ) of the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings determined that Ms. Tielman had good cause to leave her work based on the reduction in her wages and benefits, and awarded her unemployment compensation. Although we agree with the ALJ that a substantial reduction in wages may constitute good cause, we need further information to evaluate whether, on the facts of this case, Ms. Tielman had good cause to quit. We therefore remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

I.Factual Background

Petitioner Consumer Action Network (CAN) is a non-profit organization that receives government funding to assist individuals struggling with mental health issues. On October 11, 2010, CAN informed its full-time employees that, due to a recent budget decrease, their hours would be cut from forty per week to thirty.Because the employees would be working twenty-five percent fewer hours, their salaries also would be reduced by twenty-five percent.In addition, CAN's contribution to its employees' health insurance premiums would fall from one hundred percent to fifty per cent.At a staff meeting the next day, CAN announced that other employee benefits, such as the amount of annual leave to which employees were entitled, would also be reduced.

Respondent Frances Tielman, CAN's Director of Training, determined that she could not afford to live on this reduced compensation and resigned on October 17, 2010. In her letter of resignation, she cited the reduced hours and consequent drop in pay as the reason for her departure.She also mentioned a number of other work issues with which she was dissatisfied.

Ms. Tielman applied for unemployment compensation benefits from the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services (DOES), which denied her request because her "reduction in pay [was] not substantial and a reasonable and prudent person would not leave available work."On appeal, an ALJ of the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) reversed.Although the ALJ found that Ms. Tielman had voluntarily left her employment,she concluded that Ms. Tielman had "good cause [to quit] connected with the work" based on the twenty-five percent reduction in salary and the fifty percent decrease in CAN's contribution to her health insurance premiums.See D.C. Code § 51-110 (a) (2009); 7 DCMR § 311 (1986). She therefore held that Ms. Tielman qualified for unemployment compensation.

II. Standard of Review

This court's review of a decision by OAH is limited. See D.C. Code § 2-510 (2011). "To pass muster, ‗(1) the decision must state findings of fact on each material, contested factual issue; (2) those findings must be based on substantial evidence; and (3) the conclusions of law must follow rationally from the findings [of fact].'" Howard Univ. Hosp. v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 960 A.2d 603, 606 (D.C. 2008) (quoting Perkins v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 482 A.2d 401, 402 (D.C. 1984)).

"Once it has been established that the claimant left her job voluntarily, she bears the burden of proving that she did so for ‗good cause connected with the work.'" Id. at 1261 (citing 7 DCMR § 311.4). The determination of whether an employee had good cause "is factual in nature, and turns on what ‗a reasonable and prudent person in the labor market' would do under similar circumstances." Cruz v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 633 A.2d 66, 70 (D.C. 1993) (quoting Kramer v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 447 A.2d 28, 30 (D.C. 1982)). Because it is largely a factual question, an agency's determination of whether good cause existed is subject to deferential review under the substantial evidence standard. However, the narrow question of whether a significant reduction in wages and benefits may ever constitute "good cause connected with the work" is a legal conclusion that we review de novo. See Odeniran v. Hanley Wood, LLC, 985 A.2d 421, 424 (D.C. 2009) ("[R]review of an agency's legal rulings is de novo, for it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is, and the judiciary is the final authority on issues of statutory construction.") (quotation marks omitted).

III. Legal Analysis

A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Factual Findings

As an initial matter, CAN claims that the ALJ erred in finding that Ms. Tielman left her employment due to the reduction in her salary and the increase in her health insurance premiums.According to CAN, the evidence in the record showed that Ms. Tielman "quit because of her general dissatisfaction with her work."CAN highlights Ms. Tielman's own testimony regarding her numerous grievances, including, among other things, her difficulties accessing the building in the morning, having to clock in and out of the office, the ...


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