Consumer Action Network v. Tielman

Decision Date16 August 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11–AA–350.,11–AA–350.
Citation49 A.3d 1208
PartiesCONSUMER ACTION NETWORK, Petitioner, v. Frances TIELMAN, Respondent.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

49 A.3d 1208

CONSUMER ACTION NETWORK, Petitioner,
v.
Frances TIELMAN, Respondent.

No. 11–AA–350.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Argued April 11, 2012.
Decided Aug. 16, 2012.


[49 A.3d 1210]


Robert Scott Petersmeyer, of the bar of the State of California, pro hac vice, by special leave of court, for petitioner.
Connie N. Bertram, Washington, filed the brief for petitioner.

John C. Keeney, Jr., Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, with whom Julie H. Becker, Legal Aid Society, Washington, was on the brief, for respondent.


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

FISHER, Associate 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

[49 A.3d 1211]

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. SeeD.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. SeeD.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

[49 A.3d 1212]

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]eview 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 revocation of her access to one of the organization's computer drives, and her perception that her work responsibilities had been reduced.

There certainly was evidence that Ms. Tielman was dissatisfied with many aspects of her work. Nevertheless, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that she quit due to the reduction in her wages and the decrease in CAN's coverage of her health insurance premiums. See Ferreira v. District of Columbia Dep't of Emp't Servs., 667 A.2d 310, 312 (D.C.1995) (“We will affirm the agency's findings of fact ... as long as they are supported by ‘substantial evidence’ notwithstanding that there may be contrary evidence in the record (as there usually is).”). Both at the hearing before the ALJ and in her resignation letter, Ms. Tielman explicitly cited the “reduction in hours” and the corresponding “25% drop in pay” as the reason for her departure. She also mentioned the increased cost of her health insurance premiums.

Moreover, as the ALJ observed during the hearing, many of the other work-related concerns described by Ms. Tielman, and now raised by CAN as alternative reasons for her departure, had begun or taken place months before she ultimately decided to quit. When asked why she had not resigned at an earlier time, Ms. Tielman explained that she had decided to “stick with it” because she had “a family to support” and “financial obligations.” She then described the changes to her compensation as the “last straw.” The ALJ sought clarification, asking “if the reason you finally decided to resign had more to do with ... the financial aspects of the new contract provisions,” or “the things that you had experienced beforehand.” Ms. Tielman acknowledged that her work situation had been deteriorating for a while, but explained that “having it now affect my finances as well as everything else just was the last” straw. In short, there was ample evidence to support the ALJ's finding that Ms. Tielman left her position because of the reduction in her wages and the increased cost of her health insurance premiums.

B. A Substantial Reduction in Compensation May Constitute “Good Cause Connected With the Work”

Under the District's unemployment compensation statute, an employee is disqualified

[49 A.3d 1213]

from receiving unemployment benefits if he or she voluntarily left employment “without good cause connected with the work.” D.C.Code § 51–110(a). “The circumstances which constitute good cause connected with the work shall be determined by the Director based upon the facts in each case.” 7 DCMR § 311.5. The test for determining good cause is what “a reasonable and prudent person in the labor market [would] do in the same circumstances.” Id.

By regulation, the District has specified a number of circumstances that do and do not “constitute good cause connected with the work for voluntary leaving.” 7 DCMR §§ 311.6, -.7. Racial or sexual harassment, work-related illness or disability, and unsafe working conditions, among others, are considered good cause. Id. § 311.7. Personal or domestic responsibilities, a transfer from one type of work to another which is reasonable and necessary, and an employee's general dissatisfaction with work are not. Id. § 311.6. Both of these lists are illustrative, not exhaustive.

The only provision addressing the effect of a change in an employee's compensation states that a “minor reduction in wages” shall not be good cause. Id. § 311.6(b). However, neither the District's statutes nor its regulations specify whether a substantial reduction in wages and benefits may constitute good cause connected with the work. See id. § 311.7.

A fair reading of §§ 311.6 and 311.7 in combination suggests that the District chose to leave open to future regulation or adjudication the question of whether a substantial reduction in compensation may constitute good cause. If the District had intended to exclude from unemployment benefits all employees who voluntarily quit due to wage reductions, it would not have limited the provision in § 311.6 to those reductions in wages that are “minor.” See Carlson Const. Co. v. Dupont W. Condo., Inc., 932 A.2d 1132, 1136 (D.C.2007) (“A basic principle is that each provision of the [regulation] should be construed so as to give effect to all of the...

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