Daniel v. Department of Corrections, Docket No. 224423.

CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan (US)
Writing for the CourtDANHOF.
Citation248 Mich. App. 95,638 N.W.2d 175
PartiesTony J. DANIEL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Defendant-Appellee.
Docket NumberDocket No. 224423.
Decision Date10 January 2002

638 N.W.2d 175
248 Mich.
App. 95

Tony J. DANIEL, Plaintiff-Appellant,

Docket No. 224423.

Court of Appeals of Michigan.

Submitted July 10, 2001, at Lansing.

Decided November 2, 2001, at 9:05 a.m.

Released for Publication January 10, 2002.

638 N.W.2d 176
Ryan, Podein & Joyce, P.C. (by James M. Joyce), Grand Rapids, for Tony J. Daniel.
638 N.W.2d 177
Jennifer M. Granholm, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, George H. Weller, Assistant Attorney General, and David DeGraw, Special Assistant Attorney General, for the Department of Corrections

Before: NEFF, P.J., and O'CONNELL and DANHOF1, JJ.

DANHOF, Judge.

Plaintiff Tony J. Daniel appeals by leave granted from the December 9, 1999, opinion and order of the Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission (WCAC) reversing the magistrate's award of worker's compensation benefits. We reverse the WCAC's order.

I. Facts and Proceedings

Plaintiff began his employment as a probation officer with defendant Department of Corrections in November 1984. As part of his employment, plaintiff supervised convicted felons to ensure compliance with probation orders. Several times a month plaintiff was required to attend probation violation hearings held in the circuit court, where he would interact with the defense attorneys representing the probationers.

According to the record, one of the incidents giving rise to the instant proceedings occurred on August 30, 1994, when plaintiff attended the Kent Circuit Court for a parole violation hearing. On that day, plaintiff made an inappropriate remark to the female public defender representing the probationer. According to the attorney, plaintiff asked her, "[d]o you want to f..k?" When the attorney rebuffed plaintiff's advances, he told her he was married, and if they had an affair it would have to be discreet. Later that day, plaintiff sent the attorney a note in court, telling her that she would have to lose ten pounds before an affair could begin.

On February 10, 1995, plaintiff appeared in court for another parole violation hearing with the same female attorney. According to the attorney, plaintiff made reference to his earlier sexual advance in August 1994, and renewed his request for an affair. Specifically, plaintiff told the attorney, "All I told you was that you had to lose ten pounds." Plaintiff also told the attorney, "you want me, you know you want me."

The attorney subsequently complained about plaintiff's unprofessional conduct to his immediate supervisor, Jayne Price, in February 1995. Three other female attorneys followed suit, also alleging sexual harassment by plaintiff. After notifying plaintiff of the allegations, Price conducted an investigation by interviewing the attorneys and other witnesses. Plaintiff categorically denied each and every allegation of sexual harassment. After conducting her investigation, Price recommended to her area manager, Lois Patten, that a disciplinary conference be held regarding five separate counts of sexual harassment. These counts encompassed the August 30, 1994, incident, the February 10, 1995, incident, as well as allegations that plaintiff sexually harassed two other female attorneys on separate occasions in 1994.2

638 N.W.2d 178
A disciplinary conference was held on June 20, 1995. Present at the conference were plaintiff, a representative from his union, Price, and probation manager Jim Newell, who presided over the conference. On the advice of his union representative, plaintiff did not testify at the disciplinary conference, but continued to deny sexually harassing the attorneys. Following the conference, Newell made the following observations in a memorandum to Patten dated June 21, 1995
After thoroughly reviewing the investigator's report, complainants' statements, and employee Daniel's response to questions presented [to] him by the investigator, it is my conclusion that there is a strong basis on which to conclude that the [Michigan Department of Corrections] Work Rules were violated in the manner described in all five counts.

For reasons unclear from the record, plaintiff was subsequently disciplined for only two of the counts of sexual harassment with which he was originally charged. On July 24, 1995, plaintiff was notified in a memorandum by regional administrator Noreen Sawatzki that he was suspended for ten days "due to [plaintiff's] violation of The Department of Corrections Work Rules number 9 and number 12 on August 30, 1994, and February 10, 1995."3

Plaintiff returned to work in August 1995 following his ten-day suspension without pay. In January 1996, plaintiff began treatment with psychologist Daniel De-Witt, Ph.D., and was diagnosed as suffering from depression. Plaintiff thereafter took a leave of absence from work beginning February 2, 1996.4 During trial, plaintiff testified that he could not work because he felt that his life was "out of control." Plaintiff attributed his depression to Price's not being supportive of him following the suspension and to the "strained" atmosphere he experienced with the attorneys that had accused him of sexual harassment.

In June 1996, plaintiff filed a claim for worker's compensation benefits, alleging that he incurred a mental disability arising from the disciplinary proceedings. After four days of trial, the worker's compensation magistrate made the following observations:

It is clear to me that [p]laintiff's problems started with his discipline for the improprieties of which he was accused. It is difficult to have much sympathy for this claimant, since he brought these troubles on himself by his own misconduct. But compensation, like the rain, falls on the just and the unjust alike.

The magistrate also found that plaintiff's allegations that he was harassed by the female attorneys following his ten-day suspension were not credible. Finding that "[p]laintiff's discipline, and post-discipline employment events up to February 2, 1996, contributed in a significant manner to [plaintiff's] development of a disabling condition of depression, anxiety, and uncontrolled anger," the magistrate awarded benefits to plaintiff.

638 N.W.2d 179
On appeal to the WCAC, defendant argued as an affirmative defense that plaintiff was precluded from recovering benefits because he was injured by reason of his intentional and wilful misconduct. See M.C.L. § 418.305. The WCAC, in a 2 to 1 decision, agreed, holding that although plaintiff's mental disability arose out of and in the course of his employment, M.C.L. § 418.301(1), he should not receive compensation because his misconduct prompted the disciplinary proceedings that caused his injury. Plaintiff challenges the WCAC's determination that § 305 operates to bar his claim for worker's compensation benefits

II. Standard of Review

This Court's review of a decision by the WCAC is limited. Maxwell v. Procter & Gamble, 188 Mich.App. 260, 265, 468 N.W.2d 921 (1991). In the absence of fraud, we must consider the WCAC's findings of fact conclusive if there is any competent evidence in the record to support them. M.C.L. § 418.861a(14); Mudel v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 462 Mich. 691, 701, 614 N.W.2d 607 (2000). However, questions of law in a worker's compensation case are reviewed de novo and the WCAC's decision may be reversed if it was based on erroneous legal reasoning or the wrong legal framework. DiBenedetto v. West Shore Hosp., 461 Mich. 394, 401-402, 605 N.W.2d 300 (2000); M.C.L. § 418.861; M.C.L. § 418.861a(14). Questions of statutory construction are reviewed de novo. Adams v. Linderman, 244 Mich.App. 178, 184, 624 N.W.2d 776 (2000).

III. Analysis

The Worker's Disability Compensation Act (WDCA), M.C.L. § 418.101 et seq., provides compensation for persons suffering injuries arising out of and in the course of employment. M.C.L. § 418.301. Unquestionably, the act is to be "liberally construed to grant rather than deny benefits." DiBenedetto, supra at 402, 605 N.W.2d 300 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). However, M.C.L. § 418.305 provides: "If the employee is injured by reason of his intentional and wilful misconduct, he shall not receive compensation under the provisions of this act."

Defendant in this case concedes that plaintiff's injury arose out of and in the course of his employment. However, the WCAC erred in its interpretation of M.C.L. § 418.305. There is no question that plaintiff acted voluntarily and that he was disciplined because of his acts. However, the connection between the acts and the injury was too attenuated for the injury to have occurred "by reason of" his acts, and his behavior did not comprise "intentional and wilful misconduct" as contemplated by M.C.L. § 418.305 and defined by the courts.

The WCAC found that plaintiff's injuries resulted from the discipline imposed by his employer. It then went on to determine that, because plaintiff's own alleged act triggered the discipline, M.C.L. § 418.305 precluded awarding him benefits. The WCAC interpreted "by reason of" to extend to the ultimate source of the injury. Basically, this interpretation means that although plaintiff's act, by itself, did not result in injury (as it might have if his alleged target had retaliated physically), the discipline imposed should have been foreseen and was an obvious and expected outcome of the act, and it either merged with the act or formed an unbroken link between the act and the injury. The WCAC made only conclusory statements without factual support that the discipline was foreseeable and inevitable, and it did not discuss whether foreseeability should be determined by the

638 N.W.2d 180
application of either an objective or a subjective standard. The WCAC repeatedly asserted that plaintiff knew he would be disciplined. However, plaintiff has insisted since 1995 that he did nothing wrong, that he made no offensive comments. His victims allege that he made offensive...

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