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Rocha-Guzman v. District of Columbia Department of Employment Services

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 28, 2017

Nery S. Rocha-Guzman, Petitioner,
v.
District of Columbia Department of Employment Services, Respondent, and Haris Design & Construction Company, et al.,

          Submitted May 7, 2015

         On Petition for Review of Decision and Order of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services Compensation Review Board CRB-006-14

          Michael J. Kitzman was on the brief for petitioner.

          Eugene A. Adams, Interim Attorney General for the District of Columbia at the time the statement was filed, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, and Donna M. Murasky, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Solicitor General, filed a statement in lieu of brief for respondent.

          Mary G. Weidner was on the brief for intervenors.

          Before Glickman and Easterly, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.

          Ruiz, Senior Judge

         This petition for review arises from Nery Rocha-Guzmán's claim for worker's compensation benefits due to permanent total disability resulting from an injury sustained while working for his former employer, Haris Design & Construction Co. ("Haris Design"). Petitioner seeks review of an order of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services ("DOES") Compensation Review Board ("CRB") which affirmed a compensation order issued by DOES Administrative Hearings Division Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Linda F. Jory denying petitioner's claim. We hold that the CRB erred in affirming the ALJ's compensation order, and thus remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I.

         Petitioner worked as a foreman on construction and renovation projects for Haris Design. His primary duties were to convey the English-speaking superintendent's work assignments to the Spanish-speaking construction crew and to monitor the crew's work.

         On August 9, 2010, when the crew was short two workers, petitioner filled in for one of the workers. While petitioner was standing on a roof, it gave way, and petitioner's legs went through the roof, causing him injuries. Petitioner initially sought worker's compensation benefits for temporary total disability, which the parties stipulated arose out of his employment with Haris Design, and the employer paid two lump-sum payments. After receiving treatment for his injuries, petitioner returned to work in November or December of 2010. However, in February 2011, petitioner's employment with Haris Design was terminated on the basis of a review of the employer's personnel records which revealed insufficient documentation that petitioner, who came to this country from Bolivia, was authorized to work in the United States. Two years later, petitioner sought permanent total disability benefits as of April 2013, claiming that his medical condition had worsened in the intervening period and he was no longer capable of performing any work duties.

         Following an evidentiary hearing, the ALJ concluded that petitioner had not established that he was permanently and totally disabled as a result of a work-related injury - that is, that his work injury prevented him from returning to his pre-injury job. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ found petitioner's testimony about his injury and disability to be "blatantly incredible" based, in part, on petitioner's request for an interpreter during the hearing. The ALJ also noted that petitioner had returned to his pre-injury job as a foreman, and was working in that position at the time of his termination in 2011. Further, the ALJ credited the testimony of the president of Haris Design that, with proper documentation, petitioner would have still been in Haris Design's employ in 2013.[1] In short, the ALJ found that it was petitioner's immigration status, not the work-place injury, that explained why petitioner was not employed as a foreman, and denied petitioner's claim for disability compensation.

         Petitioner filed an administrative appeal with the CRB, challenging the ALJ's analysis and lack of substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings. The CRB affirmed, concluding that the ALJ's Compensation Order properly applied the burden-shifting framework set out in Logan v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 805 A.2d 237 (D.C. 2002), and that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that petitioner was not a credible witness, and thus had failed to demonstrate that he was totally and permanently disabled. Petitioner filed this petition for review of the CRB's decision pursuant to D.C. Code § 32-1522 (b)(3) (2012 Repl.).

         II.

         On petition for review of a case involving worker's compensation, we review the decision of the CRB. See Jones v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 41 A.3d 1219, 1221 (D.C. 2012). We will set aside the CRB's decision if it is "[a]rbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." D.C. Code § 2-510 (a)(3)(A) (2012 Repl.). The standard the CRB must apply in reviewing compensation orders is well established. "[O]ur cases require that (1) the [ALJ's] 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." Stewart v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 606 A.2d 1350, 1351 (D.C. 1992). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla . . . [and] means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Muhammad v.District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 774 A.2d 1107, 1111 (D.C. 2001) (quoting Stewart, 606 A.2d at 1351). Whether a compensation order is supported by substantial evidence "presents an ...


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