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D.C.: Workplace Misconduct Triggered by Domestic Abuse not Bar to Jobless Benefits

By Kirk Rafdal  6/18/2014
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Victims of domestic abuse who are terminated for misconduct nevertheless may be eligible for unemployment compensation if the abuse was a substantial factor in causing that misconduct, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled.

RCM of Washington Inc., a provider of housing for disabled persons, employed “E.C.” for nearly one year before terminating her for misconduct. Specifically, RCM alleged that E.C. had violated a company policy prohibiting unauthorized individuals on its premises when she on three occasions allowed her boyfriend to enter the property.

E.C. applied for unemployment benefits and argued that because her abusive boyfriend caused the alleged misconduct, she nevertheless was entitled to compensation under a District of Columbia statute protecting workers who are terminated “due to domestic violence.”

During a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), E.C. described her abusive boyfriend “M.L.” and his often violent and controlling behavior. On separate occasions, E.C. said that M.L. had throttled her neck, vandalized her apartment building, broke her car window, and slashed her tire. M.L. stalked E.C. relentlessly, often appearing uninvited at her workplace. When E.C. attempted to end their relationship, M.L.’s violent and threatening behavior grew even worse. E.C. admitted that she allowed M.L. to set foot on RCM’s property on a few occasions, but that she did so only because she felt intimidated and had no choice but to placate him. Ultimately, E.C. pursued temporary protection orders against M.L., but these proved largely ineffective.

RCM acknowledged that M.L.’s behavior was a factor in E.C.’s misconduct, but maintained that it was not the exclusive cause. RCM testified that as part of E.C.’s training, she and other employees were explicitly warned against unauthorized access and the potential danger to residents. E.C. also read and signed a copy of RCM’s employee handbook, which described the same prohibition and provided that violations could result in termination.

Ultimately, the ALJ agreed with RCM in holding that while E.C. was in an abusive relationship, she was not unduly coerced by M.L. when she permitted him to set foot on company property. In other words, E.C.’s domestic violence situation was not the sole cause of her termination. Because she was terminated for knowingly and willfully violating RCM’s policy, E.C. had committed “simple misconduct” and therefore was ineligible for unemployment benefits, the judge concluded.

On appeal, E.C. questioned this interpretation of D.C. law and the language “due to domestic violence.” E.C. argued that she should not have to show that domestic violence was the sole cause of her dismissal, but rather a “substantial factor.” The court agreed and noted that the ALJ’s narrow interpretation thwarted the intent of the law — ensuring individuals who lose their jobs as a result of domestic abuse are not further punished by being denied unemployment benefits. “Given the type of behaviors often exhibited by victims of domestic violence, which, though intended to placate the perpetrators may simultaneously undermine certain employer codes of conduct, it is fitting that in this context, we adopt a test intended to require a claimant to show only that the domestic violence substantially led to her separation from employment.”

The court reversed the decision of the ALJ and remanded with instructions to grant E.C.’s application for unemployment compensation.

E.C. v. RCM of Wash Inc., D.C. Ct. App., No. 12-AA-1441 (June 5, 2014).

Kirk Rafdal, J.D., is a staff writer for SHRM.

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