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Mesa County Public Library District v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

June 26, 2017

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

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 15CA966

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

          Attorneys for Respondent Industrial Claim Appeals Office: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Emmy A. Langley, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

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

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association: Roseman Law Offices, LLC Barry D. Roseman Denver, Colorado

          Susan R. Hahn Littleton, Colorado

          Williams & Rhodes LLP Marisa R. Williams Englewood, Colorado

          OPINION

          MÁRQUEZ JUSTICE.

         ¶1 The Colorado Employment Security Act (the "Act"), §§ 8-70-101 to 8-82-105, C.R.S. (2016), provides for unemployment benefits for a claimant who is involuntarily unemployed through no fault of her own. Consistent with that overarching principle, section 8-73-108(4)(j), C.R.S. (2016), of the Act requires a full award of benefits where a claimant is determined to have been "mentally unable to perform the work." In this case, a hearing officer found that claimant Laurie Gomez, who was terminated from her position as public services manager with the Mesa County Public Library District (the "Library"), suffered from acute stress disorder and depression and was mentally unable to perform the work required of her. The hearing officer nevertheless disqualified Gomez from receiving unemployment benefits under section 8-73-108(5)(e)(XX), C.R.S. (2016) (disqualifying a claimant discharged for failure to meet established job performance standards), because the officer determined that Gomez's mental condition was caused by her own poor job performance, and therefore, Gomez was ultimately at fault for her separation from employment.

         ¶2 Gomez appealed the hearing officer's decision to the Industrial Claim Appeals Office (the "panel" or the "ICAO"), which reversed. The panel adopted the hearing officer's finding that Gomez was mentally unable to perform her job duties, but concluded that the hearing officer's findings regarding the etiology of Gomez's medical condition were too remote from the proximate cause of her separation, and that scant evidence supported the conclusion that Gomez committed a volitional act to cause her mental incapacity. The court of appeals affirmed the panel's decision. Mesa. Cty. Pub. Library Dist. v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 2016 COA 96, P.3d .

         ¶3 We granted the Library's petition for certiorari review[1] and now affirm. Neither the text of section 8-73-108(4)(j) nor related case law contemplates further inquiry into the origin or root cause of a claimant's mental condition, and such an inquiry is beyond the scope of the simplified administrative proceedings to determine a claimant's eligibility for benefits. For these reasons, we agree with the court of appeals and the panel that the hearing officer erred in determining that Gomez committed a volitional act to cause her mental incapacity and was thus at fault for her separation from employment. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶4 Gomez worked for the Mesa County Public Library for nearly twenty-five years. She was terminated from her position as the public services manager in October 2014.

         ¶5 Gomez began having performance issues in 2013, shortly after the Library hired a new director. In response to Gomez's request for additional staffing in her department, the new director requested that Gomez prepare an organizational capacity report. Gomez had never prepared an organizational capacity report before, and the director was disappointed with her initial effort, which he described as a "data dump" lacking cohesion, context, and applicability to Gomez's department. The Library placed Gomez on two performance improvement plans for failing to manage staff effectively and failing to act professionally. Over the next year, Gomez continued to underperform. According to the director, Gomez failed to maintain accurate departmental operational capacity benchmarks, demonstrated resistance, and did not exhibit initiative.

         ¶6 The director placed Gomez on a third performance improvement plan and required her to prepare a satisfactory organizational capacity report by October 7, 2014, or face further disciplinary action, including possible termination. Gomez's supervisor reminded her of the October 7 deadline and offered assistance. Gomez did not indicate that she was struggling to complete the report.

         ¶7 On October 7, the day the Library expected Gomez to present her report, Gomez called in sick due to anxiety. The following day, Gomez came to work but did not discuss the report with her supervisors. She spent the afternoon shopping for the Library's Halloween event with a coworker. On October 9, Gomez again was absent from work due to anxiety, and did not return to work at the Library thereafter. ¶8 On October 14, Gomez submitted a doctor's note to the Library stating that she suffered from acute stress disorder and major depressive disorder and recommending that she be placed on medical leave for four to six weeks. The Library granted Gomez's request for time off.

         ¶9 While Gomez was on sick leave, Gomez's supervisor and the Library's human resources manager called Gomez at home to ask for the organizational capacity report. Gomez forwarded some documents and data, but did not have a complete report. Because the report was incomplete and unsatisfactory, the Library's director terminated Gomez, effective October 20, 2014.

         ¶10 At her unemployment benefits eligibility hearing before a hearing officer at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Division of Unemployment Insurance (the "Division"), Gomez explained that she had felt singled out for discipline and harassment by the Library's director as a result of age discrimination, and alleged that other female employees in their fifties and sixties were terminated or pressured to resign and then replaced by younger employees. She stated that her mental health deteriorated considerably because of "the way [the Library's administrators] were coming after [her]" and because of the multiple performance improvement plans. Gomez recounted that she had "several breakdowns" at work and that her employees noticed she was "a mess." Gomez also introduced into evidence the letter from her doctor diagnosing her with acute stress disorder and major depressive disorder.

         ¶11 In her written order, the hearing officer found that the Library terminated Gomez in 2014 "because [she] did not present or prepare a report on organizational capacity."[2] The hearing officer also found that Gomez began suffering from acute stress disorder and depression in 2013, and determined that she was mentally unable to perform her job duties.

         ¶12 The hearing officer acknowledged that Colorado law provides for unemployment benefits if a claimant separates from employment because of a physical or mental inability to perform the work. The hearing officer nevertheless concluded that Gomez was "at fault for becoming mentally unable to perform her job duties" and therefore was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. She reasoned that Gomez's anxiety and depression were caused by the performance improvement plans and the Library's criticism of her job performance, but that Gomez, in turn, was responsible for this criticism "because [she] did not perform her job duties." Thus, according to the hearing officer, Gomez was ultimately "at fault for the separation from [the Library] because she failed to meet [the Library's] established job performance standards when [she] did not present or prepare a report." The ...


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