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D.C. Court of Appeals Holds Claimants Who Show Domestic Violence Was A “Substantial Factor” In Their Separation From Employment Are Eligible For Unemployment Benefits.

E.C. v. RCM of Washington, Inc.
No. 12-AA-1441 (District of Columbia Court of Appeals, June 5, 2014)

by Richard J. Medoff, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/documents/12-AA-1441.pdf

In E.C. v. RCM of Washington, Inc., the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that any claimant who shows that domestic violence played a “substantial factor” in their separation from employment is eligible for unemployment compensation benefits under D.C. Code § 51-131, even if the claimant might otherwise be disqualified from receiving benefits, for reasons including misconduct. The Court rejected Defendant’s proposed narrow interpretation of § 51-131 requiring that domestic violence be the “sole cause” of a claimant’s separation from employment. The Court reversed the ruling of the administrative law judge (ALJ) insofar as it ruled that claimant was not qualified for unemployment benefits under § 51-131. Judge Blackburne-Rigsby wrote the opinion, in which Judges King and Easterly joined.

By way of factual background, the claimant, 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 four separate times. While E.C. was involved with M.L., she began working for RCM, an organization that provides housing for people with mental and physical disabilities. RCM had a policy prohibiting those not employed or authorized by RCM from accessing its residential facilities. RCM appraised all new hires, including E.C., of this policy. Over the course of E.C.’s relationship with M.L., M.L. exhibited controlling behavior that interfered with E.C.’s work, including: assaulting her, vandalizing her apartment and car, and stalking her at work.

According to E.C., M.L.’s abusive and controlling tactics led her to voluntarily permit M.L. to set foot on RCM property on three (3) occasions in 2011. First, in September 2011, M.L. allegedly followed E.C. to RCM’s residential facility and E.C. allowed M.L. onto the property to talk, rather than risk M.L. making a scene at her work place. Second, in November 2011, E.C. asked M.L. to pick her up at work because she was not driving at that time. Third, in December 2011, E.C. had requested M.L. bring her breakfast at work. 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 (3) instances. Subsequently, E.C. filed for unemployment insurance benefits under D.C. Code § 51-109.

Under the District of Columbia‘s unemployment compensation statute there is a presumptive right to unemployment compensation benefits. See D.C. Code § 51-109. However, an employee is ineligible to receive benefits if the employee is discharged for misconduct. D.C. Code § 51-110 (b). Although the misconduct provision disqualifies certain claimants from benefits, D.C. Code § 51-131 (a) provides an exception: “Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, no otherwise eligible individual shall be denied [unemployment compensation] benefits for any week because the individual was separated from employment by discharge or voluntary or involuntary resignation due to domestic violence against the individual . . .” (emphasis added).

The District of Columbia Department of Employment Services denied E.C.‘s application for benefits because RCM had terminated E.C. for violation of an employer rule, which constituted employee misconduct. E.C. appealed to the Office of Administrative Hearings and on July 10, 2012, an ALJ presided over a hearing on E.C.’s eligibility for unemployment benefits. The ALJ determined that E.C.’s behavior constituted misconduct because E.C. permitted M.L. to enter RCM’s residential facilities on those three (3) occasions in 2011, which constituted a willful and deliberate breach of E.C.’s obligations to RCM. The ALJ also found there were no threats or coercive behavior from M.L. on those three (3) occasions, and therefore the ALJ disagreed with E.C.‘s contention that she lost her employment “due to domestic violence.” Consequently, the ALJ did not make an explicit ruling under D.C. Code § 51-131, and denied E.C.‘s application for unemployment benefits. E.C. appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The appeal, in part, turned on the Court’s interpretation of “due to domestic violence,” under § 51-131. The Court found that the causation standard required to support a finding that a consequence is “due to” a specific action is not easily or clearly defined. Given the ambiguity of the plain meaning of “due to,” the Court sought to give effect to the policies and objectives the legislature sought to further in enacting § 51-131. Looking to § 51-131’s legislative history, the Court found that the purpose of the statute was to enable domestic violence victims to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits if they separate from their jobs. Because § 51-131 is a remedial statute, the Court noted it should be liberally construed to accomplish its purpose and extend its coverage.

Accordingly, the Court determined that the appropriate causation standard for establishing a claimant’s separation from employment was “due to domestic violence,” under § 51-131, is whether a claimant proves that the domestic violence played a “substantial factor” in her separation from employment, or that domestic violence played a “substantial factor” in incidents of employee misconduct, if such misconduct is the basis for the claimant’s separation from employment.

Applying that causation standard, the Court determined the record showed that domestic violence played a “substantial factor” in each incident of misconduct leading to E.C.’s termination from employment. The Court reasoned that each incident was “linked to the entire history of E.C.‘s relationship with M.L., which shows a continuing pattern of harassment, stalking, and threatening behavior at her place of work that ultimately led M.L. to inform her employer of the three (3) incidents of misconduct, resulting in E.C.‘s termination.” Thus, the Court concluded that the ALJ committed reversible error in determining that E.C. failed to show that her termination from employment was “due to domestic violence,” and further erred by not applying § 51-131 in order to conclude that E.C. qualified for unemployment compensation benefits. The Court reversed the decision of the ALJ and remanded the case with instructions to grant E.C.’s application for unemployment compensation benefits under § 51-131.


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