Monday, September 30, 2013

Workplace Verbal Abuse -- What the DC Court of Appeals Says

When Maria Alvarado worked as a laundry manager at Imperial Valet Services Inc., she was subjected to frequent verbal abuse from her employer, according to testimony she gave after she quit. Her boss, she said, would call her "stupid," "a piece of crap" and other names.

After warning the supervisor not to treat her that way, Alvarado quit. Imperial challenged her request for unemployment compensation benefits, arguing she voluntarily left her job without good cause. After an administrative law judge found in Alvarado's favor, Imperial appealed. 

Today, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals sided with Alvarado, finding that an employee who quit because of verbal abuse could make a claim that they left for good cause and apply for benefits. Judge Kathryn Oberly, writing for the three-judge panel, said that although employers had a right to correct employees in a "reasonable manner," employees were not required to put up with "undue verbal abuse."

According to the opinion, Alvarado didn't file a brief, so there was no attorney listed for her. Imperial's attorney, Washington solo practitioner Thomas Heslep, declined to comment because he hadn't seen the opinion yet. 

The opinion was the first time the appeals court was asked to consider whether verbal abuse could be considered good cause for quitting, in the same vein as quitting for unsafe working conditions, for instance, could be considered good cause. 

Oberly said administrative law judges should "consider the totality of circumstances" when presented with verbal abuse claims. Those circumstances would include whether the "employer habitually hurled verbal insults," whether the insults were made in front of other people, whether the employer was criticizing the employee about job-related duties, and whether the employee had brought their concerns about the abusive conduct to their employer or supervisor. 

"Requiring an ALJ to weigh these factors (not all of which must be satisfied in every case) shapes our rule to comport with the purposes of unemployment compensation, as opposed to a rule that would be harsher, albeit simpler," Oberly wrote. 

In Alvarado's case, the court found the verbal abuse she endured did give her good cause to quit. The record showed she was subjected to repeated verbal abuse, was verbally abused in front of other people, was subjected to criticism that wasn't job-related, and had tried to address the abuse with her employer before quitting.

Judge Corinne Beckwith and Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz also heard the case.

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