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E.C. v. RCM of Wash., Inc.

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

June 5, 2014


Argued September 27, 2013.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings. (2012-DOES-00933).

Jennifer Mezey, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, with whom Drake Hagner and John C. Keeney, Jr., were on the brief, for petitioner.

Joan S. Meier, Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (?DV LEAP?), and George Washington University Law School, with whom Matthew A. Eisenstein, Christa D. Forman, and Adele M.K. Gilpin, Arnold & Porter, LLP, were on the brief, for amici curiae.

Eugene A. Adams, Chief Deputy Attorney General for the District of Columbia, with whom Ariel B. Levinson-Waldman, Senior Counsel to the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Loren L. Alikhan, Deputy Solicitor General, and Richard S. Love, Senior Assistant Attorney General, filed an amicus curiae brief for petitioner.

Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY and EASTERLY, Associate Judges, and KING, Senior Judge.


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Blackburne-Rigsby, Associate Judge :

In this appeal, we are presented with an issue of first impression: whether a victim of domestic violence, who is separated from her employment on account of alleged misconduct, is nonetheless eligible for unemployment compensation benefits when the alleged misconduct underlying the victim's separation from employment is " due to domestic violence." In this case, petitioner E.C. seeks review of the decision by an administrative law judge (" ALJ" ) of the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings (" OAH" ) partially denying her claim for unemployment benefits on the basis that she was terminated for simple misconduct.

On review, E.C., joined by amici curiae and the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General (" the District" ),[1] contends that the ALJ erred in his determination that she is disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits on account of engaging in " simple misconduct," [2] by admitting her former boyfriend, who had a history of abusing her, onto the premises of her employer's residential facilities on three occasions, because she is entitled to benefits under D.C. Code § 51-131 (2010 Supp.), enacted to allow victims of domestic violence to receive unemployment compensation benefits in circumstances where they can show they have separated from their employment " due to domestic violence." E.C., amici, and the District urge us to interpret the language " due to domestic violence" broadly, to mean that any claimant who shows that domestic violence played a " substantial factor" in the claimant's separation from employment is eligible for unemployment compensation benefits, even if the claimant might otherwise be disqualified from receiving benefits, for reasons including misconduct, as alleged here.[3]

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In the alternative, E.C. challenges the ALJ's simple misconduct finding on the basis that the ALJ failed to engage in " the reasoned analysis" required for misconduct cases when he did not consider material facts and issues tending to negate any misconduct on E.C.'s part, citing Hamilton v. Hojeij Branded Food, Inc., 41 A.3d 464, 477 (D.C. 2012). Specifically, E.C. alleges that the ALJ failed to " meaningfully analyze" the " underlying reasons" for her actions, namely, the domestic violence context that affected E.C. and her conduct toward her employer. See Larry v. National Rehabilitation Hospital, 973 A.2d 180, 183-84 (D.C. 2009).

With regard to the domestic violence statute, we conclude that, based on the statute's legislative history, remedial purpose to combat domestic violence and its impact on victims in the unemployment compensation context, as well as public policies underlying similar remedial legislation, the statute intends to allow for broad coverage of claimants whose separation from employment is " due to domestic violence." However, we emphasize that in order for a claimant to qualify for benefits under this provision of the statute, the claimant first must establish a causal nexus between the domestic violence and the claimant's separation from employment. To establish that a claimant's separation from employment was " due to domestic violence" under D.C. Code § 51-131, a claimant must show that: (1) the claimant suffered domestic violence that qualifies as an " intrafamily offense" under the Intrafamily Offenses Act[4] (" IFOA" ), along with qualifying supporting documentation, and (2) domestic violence played a " substantial factor" in the claimant's separation from employment.

In this case, we hold that E.C. established a clear causal nexus between the conduct that led to her termination from employment and the domestic violence that she suffered, thereby showing that domestic violence played a " substantial factor" in her separation from employment. Because E.C. established that her separation from employment was " due to domestic violence," under our interpretation of the statute's language, E.C. is eligible for unemployment compensation benefits. Accordingly, we reverse the ALJ's ruling partially disqualifying E.C. from benefits. Because we determine that E.C. clearly established that the instances of misconduct leading to her termination from employment were " due to domestic violence," we need not draw any conclusions on her alternate claim.

I. Factual Background

The uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that E.C. was in an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend, M.L., for over eleven months, during which time she tried to end the relationship no less than four separate times. While E.C. was involved with M.L., she began working for RCM, an organization that provides housing for persons with mental and physical disabilities (" residents" ). To ensure the safety of the residents under RCM's care, it required all employees to observe a company policy prohibiting those not employed or authorized by RCM from accessing its residential facilities. RCM apprised all new hires, including E.C., of the policy at new hire orientation and company training, as well as in the personnel handbook provided to each employee.

Over the course of E.C.'s relationship with M.L., he exhibited controlling behavior that interfered with her work and became extreme and violent whenever E.C.

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attempted to end the relationship. For example, in separate instances, M.L. grabbed E.C. around her neck, vandalized her apartment building, kicked in her car window, slashed her tire, and stalked her at work. In another incident, M.L. repeatedly called E.C., came to her workplace, and tapped on the glass patio door of her workplace while he watched her ignore his calls. According to E.C., it was M.L.'s abusive and controlling tactics, specifically his repeated attempts to invade her work space and stalk her at work, which led E.C. to permit him to set foot on RCM property on three separate occasions, in violation of RCM's policy prohibiting access to unauthorized persons, ultimately leading to her termination.

For example, during E.C.'s employment, M.L. showed up at her workplace multiple times despite her instructing him that he was not allowed on RCM's premises. According to E.C., M.L. appeared uninvited so often at her workplace that she could not " even give a number" for the times he appeared. In one such instance, E.C. felt compelled to speak with M.L. on a public street by the RCM facility because " it's safer for [her] to allow him to say what he needs to say so that [she] [could] remain safe." E.C. eventually ended the relationship with M.L. in March 2012, which led to M.L.'s final threat to get E.C. fired. Specifically, M.L. said: " [Y]ou think that you're going to hold your job? You're unfit to work here and I'm going to make sure that I call your employ[er]."

To protect herself against M.L., E.C. filed two temporary protection orders (" TPO" ) in August 2011 and March 2012, respectively, in the Domestic Violence Unit of D.C. Superior Court, both of which were granted and ordered M.L. to stay away from E.C.'s work and home, among other places. The court, however, rejected E.C.'s September 2011 request for a civil protection order (" CPO" ), which resulted in the lapse of her August 2011 TPO, because, according to the court, the parties seemed to agree on their desire to stay away from each other, given that M.L. had similarly filed a TPO against E.C.[5] E.C. later filed a second CPO against M.L. in March 2012 that the court granted. In that CPO, E.C. described numerous incidents, including how M.L. repeatedly came to RCM's residential facility at 110 Michigan Ave., Northeast, and how during one argument, he grabbed E.C.'s purse and then grabbed her neck.

With regard to her alleged misconduct, E.C. admitted that she voluntarily allowed M.L. onto RCM property on three occasions. During the first incident, M.L. allegedly followed her to RCM's residential facility on Alabama Avenue from her September 1, 2011 hearing at Superior Court, where she had attempted to file a petition for a CPO against him. Rather than risk M.L. " mak[ing] a scene at [her] workplace,"

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and even though she warned M.L. that he should not be at her workplace, E.C. nevertheless allowed M.L. onto the property for twenty minutes while she prepared a meal for an RCM resident because " the last thing [she] needed was to lose her job."

On the second occasion, in November 2011, E.C. had asked M.L. to pick her up at work because she was not driving at that time, but when he arrived, she had not yet finished her work. While E.C. completed her duties for the day, her co-worker, Carolyn Harris, gave M.L. access onto the property, access to which E.C. appeared to acquiesce, or at least not explicitly deny. M.L. remained on the property for roughly two minutes, and did not interact with any of the RCM facility's residents. During the third incident, in December 2011, E.C. had requested that M.L. bring her breakfast to work because she had to " come into work unexpectedly and could not stop . . . to get breakfast [that] particular morning." E.C. admitted that she allowed M.L. to enter the property as far as the outer door of the apartment, where E.C. was caring for a resident, because she could not leave the residents alone. An RCM resident who had met M.L. at a holiday party then invited him into the apartment. M.L. remained on the property " no longer than ten minutes."

RCM eventually terminated E.C. on the basis that she had violated company policy by admitting non-authorized persons onto company property in those three instances. Subsequently, E.C. filed for unemployment insurance benefits under D.C. Code § 51-109 (2001). The District of Columbia Department of Employment Services denied E.C.'s application for benefits on May 29, 2012, because RCM had terminated E.C. for violation of an employer rule, constituting employee misconduct. E.C. appealed that denial of benefits to the OAH.

On July 10, 2012, ALJ James Harmon presided over a hearing on E.C.'s eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits. Specifically, the ALJ determined the issues before him to be: (1) whether E.C. " engaged in any type of work-related misconduct that would warrant the denial of her receiving [these] benefits" and (2) whether D.C. Code § 51-131 applied to E.C.'s case on account of any domestic violence.

At the hearing, RCM presented evidence from three witnesses: Stacey Whitted, Human Resources Manager for RCM; Keesa Robinson, Support Coordinator for RCM; and Paulette Robinson, Incident Management Coordinator for RCM. Ms. Whitted and Ms. Keesa Robinson both attested that M.L. was not an employee of RCM, and Ms. Robinson further testified that, as E.C.'s supervisor, she had not authorized M.L. to be on the property. Ms. Paulette Robinson testified that she personally advised E.C. of the policy on prohibited access by unauthorized persons to RCM facilities, for which, she confirmed, E.C. was terminated.[6] Notably, Ms. Robinson testified that prior to terminating E.C., RCM learned of her domestic violence issues with M.L. E.C. revealed to her employer that she had " a past violent history" with M.L., including " quite a few

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bad altercations." Ms. Robinson also testified that E.C. described multiple incidents where M.L. either appeared at RCM's residential facilities, or followed E.C. in the community while she served RCM residents.

At the hearing, E.C. testified about M.L.'s history of abusive behavior, including incidents intended to show M.L.'s interference with and effect on her employment at RCM. To further support her claim of domestic violence, E.C. called a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (" LICSW" ), Heather Powers,[7] to testify as an expert witness on domestic violence. Ms. Powers testified that, in her opinion, E.C. had experienced domestic violence during her relationship with M.L., namely, through " [his] coercion and threats[,] . . . intimidation, . . . destroying [her] property, [inflicting] emotional abuse . . . [and] isolation, controlling what [E.C.] [did] . . . and using economic abuse, ...

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