Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Mesa County Public Library District v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office of State

Court of Appeals of Colorado, First Division

June 16, 2016

Mesa County Public Library District, Petitioner,
v.
Industrial Claim Appeals Office of the State of Colorado and Laurie A. Gomez, Respondents.

         Industrial Claim Appeals Office of the State of Colorado DD No. 26790-2014.

          Bechtel & Santo, LLP, Michael C. Santo, Grand Junction, Colorado, for Petitioner

          No Appearance for Respondent Industrial Claim Appeals Office

          Karp Neu Hanlon, P.C., Anna S. Itenberg, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for Respondent Laurie A. Gomez

          HARRIS JUDGE

         ¶ 1 In this unemployment compensation benefits case, petitioner, Mesa County Public Library District (Library), seeks review of a final order of the Industrial Claim Appeals Office (Panel). A hearing officer disqualified respondent Laurie A. Gomez from receiving benefits under section 8-73-108(5)(e)(XX), C.R.S. 2015 (failure to meet established job performance standards), finding that although she was mentally unable to perform the work, a designation that would ordinarily entitle her to benefits under section 8-73-108(4)(j), her mental impairment had been caused in the first instance by her own poor work performance. Thus, according to the hearing officer, Ms. Gomez was ultimately at fault for her separation from employment.

         ¶ 2 The Panel reversed, concluding that the hearing officer's determination of the etiology of Ms. Gomez's medical condition was too attenuated from the cause of separation to be relevant and was not supported by substantial evidence. We affirm the Panel's decision.

         I. Background

         ¶ 3 Ms. Gomez worked for the Library for almost twenty-five years. At the time of her termination, she was the public services manager.

         ¶ 4 Ms. Gomez began having performance issues in the fall of 2013, shortly after the Library hired a new director. When she requested additional staff, the director asked Ms. Gomez to prepare an organizational capacity report to determine if she was effectively utilizing existing staff. Ms. Gomez had never prepared an organizational capacity report before, and the director was not satisfied with her work product, which he characterized as a "data dump" devoid of analysis, cohesion, and context. Ms. Gomez was subsequently placed on two successive performance improvement plans (PIPs) for failing to manage her staff effectively and act professionally.

         ¶ 5 In September 2014, the director placed Ms. Gomez on a third PIP and told her that if she did not prepare a satisfactory organizational capacity report by October 7, 2014, she faced additional disciplinary action, including possible discharge.

         ¶ 6 Ms. Gomez called in sick on October 7. She returned to work on October 8, but she did not communicate with her supervisors about the report and, instead, she spent that afternoon shopping for supplies for a Library event scheduled for the end of the month. Ms. Gomez called in sick again on October 9 and did not return to work thereafter.

         ¶ 7 On October 14, she submitted a doctor's note to her supervisors, which advised that Ms. Gomez was suffering from an acute stress disorder and major depressive disorder. The doctor recommended that Ms. Gomez remain off from work for four to six weeks so that her condition could stabilize. At the time, Ms. Gomez was taking several psychotropic medications. The Library granted Ms. Gomez's request for time off.

         ¶ 8 On October 15, while Ms. Gomez was home on leave, the director contacted her and requested that she send the organizational capacity report to him. Ms. Gomez forwarded some documents to him, but the report was not satisfactory, and the director terminated her effective October 20, 2014. According to the hearing officer's findings, the proximate cause of Ms. Gomez's separation from employment was her failure to "present or prepare a report on organizational capacity for the administrative team."

         ¶ 9 At the hearing to determine eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits, Ms. Gomez attributed her mental health problems to job-related circumstances. She told the hearing officer that she felt singled out for disciplinary action by the new director and believed that he was trying to force her to quit so that he could replace her with a younger employee. According to Ms. Gomez, her mental health deteriorated significantly after issuance of the September 2014 PIP and, by early October, she had frequent emotional breakdowns at work. She said that her staff offered to help with tasks because they could see that she was "a mess."

         ¶ 10 The hearing officer determined that Ms. Gomez "bec[ame] mentally unable to perform her job duties." However, she declined to award benefits because she further concluded that Ms. Gomez was "at fault" for becoming mentally unable to complete the report. According to the hearing officer, Ms. Gomez's poor job performance beginning in 2013 led to criticism by her supervisors which, in turn, brought about her stress and major depressive disorders which ultimately prevented her from completing the report due on October 7. The hearing officer therefore found that Ms. Gomez had failed to meet the employer's established job performance standards and, under section 8-73-108(5)(e)(XX), she was disqualified from receiving benefits.

         ¶ 11 On review, the Panel adopted the hearing officer's evidentiary findings that Ms. Gomez's failure to complete the report was the reason for her termination and that, at the time the report was due, Ms. Gomez was mentally unable to complete it. The Panel, however, rejected, as a matter of law and fact, the hearing officer's conclusion that Ms. Gomez was disqualified from receiving benefits because she was at fault for her own diagnosed mental health disorders. Accordingly, the Panel awarded Ms. Gomez benefits under section 8-73-108(4)(j).

         ¶ 12 The Library now appeals.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶ 13 We are bound by the hearing officer's findings of evidentiary facts if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Harbert v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 2012 COA 23, ¶ 7. However, we review de novo the hearing officer's and the Panel's ultimate conclusions of fact. Commc'ns Workers of Am. 7717 v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 2012 COA 148, ¶ 7 (citing Federico v. Brannan Sand & Gravel Co., 788 P.2d 1268, 1272 (Colo. 1990)) (ultimate conclusions of fact are conclusions of law or mixed questions of law and fact which determine the parties' rights and liabilities and which are generally phrased in the language of the controlling statute or legal standard). The determination as to whether a claimant was "at fault" for the separation from employment is an ultimate legal conclusion that we likewise review de novo. Bell v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 93 P.3d 584, 586 (Colo.App. 2004). We will uphold the Panel's decision unless the findings of fact do not support the decision or the decision is erroneous as a matter of law. § 8-74-107(6), C.R.S. 2015; Nagl v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 2015 COA 51, ¶ 7.

         III. Discussion

         A. Legal Principles

         ¶ 14 The Colorado Employment Security Act (Act) is designed to lighten the burden of unemployment on those who are involuntarily unemployed through no fault of their own. Colo. Div. of Emp't & Training v. Hewlett, 777 P.2d 704, 706 (Colo. 1989). Pursuant to the Act, benefits must be granted to an employee unless the job separation was due to one or more statutorily enumerated causes. Id. at 707. The Act is to be liberally construed to further its remedial and beneficent purposes. Id.

         ¶ 15 In a claim for unemployment compensation benefits under section 8-73-108, a claimant must first establish a prima facie case for an award. City & Cty. of Denver v. Indus. Comm'n, 756 P.2d 373, 380 (Colo. 1988). Once established, "the burden of going forward shifts to the employer to demonstrate that the claimant's termination was for a reason that would disqualify the claimant from the receipt of benefits under the provisions of § 8-73-108(5)." Ward v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 916 P.2d 605, 607 (Colo.App. 1995). If this burden is met, "claimant then must present evidence to justify the acts which led to the separation and show that he or she is entitled to benefits under the provisions of § 8-73-108(4)." Id.

         B. Analysis

         1. The Panel Properly Accepted the Hearing Officer's Findings of Fact

         ¶ 16 The Library first argues that the Panel exceeded its authority by substituting its findings of fact for those of the hearing officer. According to the Library, the hearing officer found that Ms. Gomez was terminated because she failed to complete the report, but the Panel determined that the reason for separation was her mental inability to perform her job duties. We disagree. In fact, the Panel deferred to, and adopted, both of the hearing officer's findings of fact critical to this appeal. Specifically, the hearing officer first found that the Library "terminated the claimant because the claimant did not present or prepare a report on organizational capacity for the administrative team." The Panel concluded that this finding was supported by the record, and we agree. Next, the hearing officer found that Ms. Gomez suffered from acute stress and depression, and that she "be[came] mentally unable to perform her job duties." The Panel adopted this finding as well, and we likewise conclude that it is supported by evidence in the record.

         ¶ 17 Thus, we, like the Panel, are bound by the hearing officer's finding that Ms. Gomez was terminated for failing to prepare a report that she was mentally unable to complete. Harbert, ¶ 7.

         ¶ 18 Because we are bound by these findings, we reject the Library's next contention that the evidence demonstrated that Ms. Gomez's mental health disorder did not affect her ability to complete the report. The Library insists that because Ms. Gomez worked on the report until early October and failed to notify her supervisors of her mental health problems until after the report's due date, the record did not support a finding that Ms. Gomez's medical condition made her unable to complete the assigned task.

         ¶ 19 We acknowledge that an employee with a mental health condition is not automatically entitled to benefits upon termination, but must instead demonstrate that her mental health condition rendered her unable to perform her job duties. See, e.g., Tague v. Coors Porcelain Co., 30 Colo.App. 158, 161, 490 P.2d 96, 98 (1971) (employee who suffered two nervous breakdowns was not entitled to benefits because his mental health condition did not make him unable to perform the work). Here, though, the hearing officer heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including Ms. Gomez, who detailed her frequent breakdowns at work, and the hearing officer found that Ms. Gomez became mentally unable to perform her job duties. While the evidence on this issue might have been conflicting, it was up to the hearing officer to resolve conflicts in the testimony. See Elec. Fab Tech. Corp. v. Wood, 749 P.2d 470, 471 (Colo.App. 1987) (conflicting testimony about employee's ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.