Claim Appeals Office of the State of Colorado DD No.
Bechtel & Santo, LLP, Michael C. Santo, Grand Junction,
Colorado, for Petitioner
Appearance for Respondent Industrial Claim Appeals Office
Neu Hanlon, P.C., Anna S. Itenberg, Glenwood Springs,
Colorado, for Respondent Laurie A. Gomez
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.
3 Ms. Gomez worked for the Library for almost twenty-five
years. At the time of her termination, she was the public
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
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
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
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
12 The Library now appeals.
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.
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 §
Panel Properly Accepted the Hearing Officer's Findings of
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