Appellate Victory Further Clarifies “Excusable Neglect” Provision of UI Law
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Last week, the D.C. Court of Appeals issued its decision in Admasu v. 7-11 Food Store #11731G/21926D, No. 13-AA-1038. This important case built on Legal Aid’s prior victory in Savage-Bey v. La Petite Academy, 50 A.3d 1055 (D.C. 2012), and reaffirmed that judges must carefully consider an unemployment claimant’s reasons for delay when deciding whether to hear a late-filed appeal.

Admasu arose out of a family emergency. Mr. Admasu, a native Amharic speaker, applied for unemployment benefits after he was terminated from his position at a 7-11 food store. While he was waiting for a decision on his claim, his parents became gravely ill, and he returned home to his native Ethiopia to care for them.

Several weeks later, while Mr. Admasu was still in Ethiopia, the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) sent a letter to his home in D.C. informing him that his claim had been denied. The letter stated that Mr. Admasu had fifteen days to appeal the denial. Mr. Admasu’s wife, who had remained behind in D.C., contacted Mr. Admasu in Ethiopia to tell him his claim had been denied, but did not tell him about the appeal deadline because she had limited English proficiency and could not understand all of the letter.

Approximately two months later, after his parents had sadly passed away, Mr. Admasu returned to the United States. He went in person to the DOES office to inquire about his claim and was told it had been denied. He immediately filed an appeal.

D.C. law requires unemployment claimants whose benefits have been denied to file their appeal within fifteen days. Otherwise, they lose their appeal rights. But the law provides an exception for claimants who show that their delay was the result of “excusable neglect.”

In its 2012 decision in Savage-Bey, the D.C. Court of Appeals adopted a four-part test for determining whether a claimant has demonstrated “excusable neglect.” The factors the court must consider are: (1) the reason for the delay; (2) the length of delay; (3) whether the delay prejudiced the opposing party; and (4) whether the claimant acted in good faith.

The administrative law judge who heard Mr. Admasu’s appeal concluded he had not demonstrated excusable neglect because, in the judge’s view, Mr. Admasu had not acted in good faith. According to the judge, Mr. Admasu should have appointed someone who could read English to watch his mail while he was gone, in case any communications regarding his unemployment claim arrived. Thus, the judge refused to hear Mr. Admasu’s appeal.

Mr. Admasu came to Legal Aid with his story and asked what Legal Aid could do to help. After reviewing Mr. Admasu’s file and investigating the relevant case law, we determined that he had strong grounds to appeal the judge’s dismissal.

In Savage-Bey, which Legal Aid had litigated before the D.C. Court of Appeals, the court found that the claimant had demonstrated excusable neglect because she had been told she would receive a claim determination in the mail, never received one, and filed her appeal immediately upon learning the determination had been sent out (though not received).

Mr. Admasu’s case seemed similar to Savage-Bey in a number of important ways. Like the petitioner in Savage-Bey, he didn’t know the appeal deadline had passed until it was too late, and filed an appeal immediately upon learning his claim had been denied. Mr. Admasu also had other important factors in his favor. Both he and his wife had limited English proficiency, which made it difficult for them to understand the denial letter, and most importantly, he was out of the country caring for his dying parents when the denial letter arrived. If that’s not excusable neglect, it’s hard to imagine what would be.

Legal Aid argued to the D.C. Court of Appeals that the administrative law judge had misapplied the relevant standard and erroneously found that Mr. Admasu had acted in bad faith. After all, Mr. Admasu had filed his appeal immediately upon learning his claim had been denied. And even if he had, as the administrative law judge suggested, found someone fluent in English to read his mail while he was gone, he wouldn’t have had any way to file his appeal because he was halfway around the world.

In its decision, the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Legal Aid that the administrative law judge had abused her discretion in refusing to hear Mr. Admasu’s appeal. To begin with, by fixating on Mr. Admasu’s alleged bad faith, the administrative law judge ignored the other three factors of the excusable neglect test, including the most important factor, the reason for the delay. Additionally, the administrative law judge’s finding that Mr. Admasu acted in bad faith was not supported by the record. Mr. Admasu had no way to meet the appeal deadline while he was in Ethiopia, and filed his appeal immediately upon learning his claim had been denied. This was good faith, not the opposite.

As a result of the Court of Appeals’s decision, Mr. Admasu will now have the opportunity to argue he’s eligible for unemployment benefits, an opportunity the administrative law judge’s erroneous decision would have denied him. Future claimants who, through no fault of their own, miss their appeal deadline will also have the opportunity to have their day in court.

I’m very glad that I had the chance to work on Mr. Admasu’s appeal. His was a case where the judge had clearly misapplied the law, and where the judge’s mistake had put the losing party in a precarious position. Without unemployment benefits, Mr. Admasu has no way to support his family while he looks for a new job. Even more frustrating, Mr. Admasu predicament was the result of a family emergency: the reason he missed the appeal deadline was because he was in Ethiopia caring for his dying parents. No person should have to choose between receiving benefits and caring for a sick family member.

Mr. Admasu’s case was one of several I worked on during my time as a Sidley Austin loaned associated at Legal Aid. These cases were unlike the paid cases I worked on at the firm. They involved clients facing economic extremity, for whom a decision could mean the difference between getting by and suffering ruin. The ability to make a difference for clients with tangible needs was one of the highlights of my time at Legal Aid. Admasu was first and foremost a victory for Mr. Admasu, but it was also an opportunity for me to use my legal training to help make someone else’s life a little bit better. I’m grateful to have had that opportunity.

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