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Ruling could give victims of domestic violence an easier path to unemployment benefits

A ruling this month from the District’s highest court could give victims of domestic violence a simpler path to unemployment benefits if they are fired because of circumstances connected to the abuse.

The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled June 9 on the case of “E.C.,” a woman who worked in homes for the disabled and was also in an abusive relationship with a man who stalked her at work. After E.C. ended the relationship, the man threatened to get her fired, according to the case record.

She was fired in May 2012, after allowing the man onto her employer’s property against company policy. Because she was fired for employee misconduct, she was denied full unemployment benefits.

E.C. appealed the unemployment ruling to an administrative law judge, who acknowledged a “turbulent relationship” but ruled that because “there were no threats or coercive behavior . . . on those occasions” when she broke company rules, her claim to full unemployment benefits could not be sustained.

The appeals court disagreed, ruling that the judge should have considered the pattern of abuse against E.C. more broadly and that her case “squarely fits within the purpose” of a 2004 law meant to protect domestic violence victims’ access to public benefits.

Lawyers for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, which represented E.C. during her fight for benefits, said the ruling is the first of its kind in the United States.

Jennifer Mezey, a supervising attorney in Legal Aid’s public benefits unit, noted that E.C. had to find an expert witness to testify to the effects of domestic violence in the workplace. “Our hope is, with this decision, people will not have to go out and get expert witnesses,” Mezey said. “These incidents were about minimizing harm.”

In an interview arranged by her attorneys, E.C. said it was difficult taking her case through an appeal. “No one wants to air their dirty laundry,” she said. “It was very embarrassing to have to go to court and reveal every detail of my private life. But because it was necessary, I did.”

E.C. is not named in court filings, and The Washington Post does not publish the names of domestic abuse victims.

Drake Hagner, a Legal Aid staff attorney who worked on E.C.’s case, said the appeals court ruling sets an important precedent: “You can do something wrong at work due to domestic violence and, because it’s through no fault of your own, you can collect benefits.”

There are few hard statistics on how many might benefit from the ruling, but studies have indicated a relationship between domestic violence and employment. Two studies, from 2005 and 2009, found that more than half of stalking victims reported it happening at work. The 2005 study surveyed 32 women who were employed while in abusive relationships and found that the vast majority had resigned or been fired because of the abuse.

Receiving unemployment benefits, Mezey said, is crucial for domestic violence victims because a firing can cause them to remain dependent on an abuser for basic needs.

E.C. said she wanted to fight on behalf of other abused women. “I just feel that I’m not the only one that may have been wronged,” she said. “The truth is, I had no control. . . . If you’re at the workplace and you’ve already had a taste of the behavior before, you tend to protect yourself. You don’t want any harm to come to you, and you don’t want any harm to come to anyone else in your workplace. If that’s going to keep him calm, that’s what you’re going to do.”

Mezey and Hagner declined to say whether E.C. was pursuing further action against her employer, RCM of Washington, to challenge her firing.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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