Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law

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Littleton firefighter Jeffrey Christ was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (“GBM,” a type of brain cancer). After undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, he returned to work, but ultimately died as a result of the disease. He (and later his widow and child) sought workers’ compensation benefits to cover his cancer treatment, asserting that his brain cancer qualified as a compensable occupational disease under the “firefighter statute” of the Workers’ Compensation Act of Colorado. .At issue here was whether Christ’s employer, the City of Littleton, and Littleton’s insurer, Cannon Cochran Management Services, Inc. (collectively “Littleton”), successfully overcame a statutory presumption that Christ’s condition resulted from his employment as a firefighter. After review, the Supreme Court held that the employer, through a preponderance of the evidence, could meet its burden to show the firefighter's cancer "did not occur on the job" by establishing the absence of specific causation. Here, the ALJ applied the statutory presumption and found that Littleton established by a preponderance that Christ's GBM condition was not caused by his occupational exposures. A panel of the Industrial Claim Appeals Office (“Panel”) reversed, concluding that Littleton’s medical evidence was insufficient to overcome the presumption. In a split decision, a division of the court of appeals affirmed the Panel. Because the Supreme Court disagreed with the court of appeals’ interpretation of the breadth of the statutory presumption and of the employer’s burden to overcome the presumption, the Court concluded that the court of appeals erroneously evaluated the medical evidence presented by Littleton and erroneously failed to defer to the ALJ’s findings of fact, which are supported by substantial evidence. The court of appeals' judgment was therefore reversed and the case remanded back to the Panel for reinstatement of the ALJ’s original findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order. View "City of Littleton v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office" on Justia Law

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Castle Rock firefighter Mike Zukowski was diagnosed with melanoma. He had three surgeries to remove the melanoma and was then released to return to work on full duty. He sought both medical benefits and temporary total disability benefits under the "firefighter statute" of the Workers’ Compensation Act of Colorado, asserting that his melanoma qualified as a compensable occupational disease. At issue here was whether Zukowski’s employer, the Town of Castle Rock, and Castle Rock’s insurer, the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency (collectively, “Castle Rock”), could overcome a statutory presumption that Zukowski’s condition resulted from his employment as a firefighter by presenting evidence indicating that Zukowski’s risk of melanoma from other sources was greater than his risk of melanoma from firefighting. After review, the Supreme Court held that the employer, through a preponderance of the evidence, could meet its burden to show the firefighter's cancer "did not occur on the job" by establishing the absence of specific causation. Here, Castle Rock sought to establish the absence of specific causation by presenting evidence indicated that Zukowski's particular risk of developing melanoma from other, non-job-related sources outweighed his risk of developing it from on-the-job, and that an employer could rely on such evidence to overcome the statutory presumption. The Court affirmed the court of appeals and remanded this case back to the ALJ for reconsideration. View "Indus. Claim Appeals Office v. Town of Castle Rock" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Cathy Ritzert had worked as a teacher for more than twenty years. She worked for the Air Academy High School, part of the Academy School District No. 20. A student's parents complained about Ritzert, and the District placed her on administrative leave, telling her they would recommend dismissal unless she resigned. Ritzert refused. Several months passed without the District making good on its threat to fire her. Ritzert eventually took a new job teaching special needs students in a neighboring district, claiming she did this to mitigate her damages. She still wanted the District to prove it had a legitimate basis for terminating her, so she again refused to quit. The District responded by ordering Ritzert to report to work as a floating substitute. When Ritzert did not comply, the District initiated formal dismissal proceedings, claiming in part that her refusal to return to work constituted insubordination. A hearing officer recommended that Ritzert be retained, finding in part that the District's insubordination allegation was pretextual and unreasonable under the circumstances. The Board dismissed Ritzert for insubordination anyway, making no comment about the complaint that triggered placing her on leave in the first place. Upon review of this matter, the Colorado Supreme Court held that under the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act of 1990 (TECDA), the School Board's order must be fully warranted by the hearing officer's evidentiary findings of fact. Because the Board here "abdicated" that responsibility here, the Court concluded that its decision to dismiss Ritzert for insubordination on the facts of this case was arbitrary and capricious. The Court reversed the court of appeals and remanded this case to the Board to reinstate Ritzert. View "Ritzert v. Board of Education" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Brandon Coats claimed respondent Dish Network, LLC violated 24-34-402.5 C.R.s. (2014) by terminating his employment based on his state-licensed use of medical marijuana at home, during non-working hours. He argued that the Medical Marijuana Amendment (Colo. Const. art XVIII sec. 14) made such use "lawful" for purposes of the statute, notwithstanding any federal laws prohibiting medical marijuana use. The trial court dismissed petitioner's complaint for failure to state a claim after finding that medical marijuana use was not "lawful" under Colorado state law. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court, after review, affirmed: "the term 'lawful' as used in section 24-34-402.5, was not restricted in any way, and we decline to engraft a state law limitation onto the term. Therefore, an activity such as medical marijuana use that is unlawful under the federal law is not a 'lawful' activity under section 24-34-402.5." View "Coats v. Dish Network" on Justia Law

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Health Grades, Inc., operated a website providing information to healthcare consumers about hospitals and physicians around the country, filed suit against two of its former employees, Christopher Boyer and Patrick Singson. Its complaint alleged that Boyer and Singson created competing websites during their employment at Health Grades and solicited Health Grades’ clients to advertise on their competing websites, which utilized proprietary methodologies created by Health Grades to increase the probability that consumers would discover their websites. The complaint included claims of breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty, misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference with prospective business advantage, and ultimately, breach of contract and conversion. Defendants Boyer and Singson denied Health Grades’ material allegations and asserted a counterclaim for abuse of process. In support of their counterclaim, they alleged that Health Grades’ claims lacked a reasonable factual basis or cognizable basis in law and were based on allegations Health Grades largely knew to be false. A jury rejected all of Health Grades’ claims and returned a verdict for defendants on their counterclaim. The court subsequently denied Health Grades’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. On appeal, the intermediate appellate court found that the district court erred by allowing the jury to decide the question of whether Health Grades’ claims were devoid of reasonable factual support or lacked any cognizable basis in law such that they were not immune from liability under the Petition Clause of the First Amendment; and it remanded with instructions for the district court to make an independent judicial determination of that question. Shortly after the opinion was released, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in "General Steel Domestic Sales, LLC v. Bacheller," (291 P.3d 1), holding that the heightened standard set forth in earlier case law did not apply where the underlying alleged petitioning activity was the filing of an arbitration complaint concerning a purely private dispute. On rehearing, the court of appeals modified its initial opinion, concluding that nothing in "General Steel" required the modification of its remand order. Because the Supreme Court held that the underlying rationale for its judgment in General Steel concerning arbitration proceedings was equally applicable to actions filed in courts of law, and because it was uncontested by the parties that the action filed by Health Grades involved a purely private dispute, the judgment of the court of appeals was reversed, and the matter remanded with directions to affirm the jury’s verdict. View "Boyer v. Health Grades, Inc." on Justia Law

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To address economic conditions and projections demonstrating a severely underfunded plan, the Colorado General Assembly approved measured designed to protect present and future retirees by providing an adequately pension program. This appeal centered on changes made to the annual cost of living (COLA) that applied to increase each retiree's vested base retirement benefit. Plaintiffs in this case were retired public employees who contended that they had a contract with the State entitling each of them, upon retirement, to have their base pension benefit annually adjusted by the specific COLA formula in existence at the time they were eligible to retire, for the rest of their lives without change. The district court ruled they had no such contract right to an unchangeable COLA formula. The court of appeals disagreed, finding the retirees had a contract right to the formula in place at the time of eligibility for retirement or actual retirement based on the so-called "public policy exception," and remanded for further review to determine whether the legislature's act violated the Contract Clauses of the federal and state constitutions. The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with the court of appeals, and agreed with the district court. The appellate court's judgment was reversed that the district court's judgment reinstated. View "Justus v. Colorado Public Employee's Retirement Association Pension Plan" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Western Logistics, Inc. appealed the court of appeals' decision to affirm the Industrial Claim Appeals Office's decision that certain individuals were employees rather than independent contractors under Colorado law. The appellate court found that the individuals were not simultaneously providing services for others in the field, and were not free from petitioner's control and direction. Upon review of the specific facts of this case, the Supreme Court concluded the appellate court erred in affirming the Appeals Office's decision: because the court felt the independent-trade-or-business issue and the control-and-direction issue may have been related, the Court did not address the control-and-direction issue. The Court reversed and remanded the case to the court of appeals to vacate the portion of its decision that addressed the control-and-direction issue, then to remand the case to the Appeals Office for further proceedings. View "Western Logistics, Inc. v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented to the Colorado Supreme Court was whether an individual was an independent contractor as opposed to an employee for unemployment tax liability purposes. Waterman Ormsby was a geologist contracted to work on a project basis for Softrock Geological Services, Inc. In 2011, the Division of Employment and Training audited Softrock and issued a notice of liability on grounds that Softrock should have treated Ormsby as an employee for Colorado Employment Security Act (CESA) purposes. Upon review, the Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals that whether an individual was "customarily engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession, or business related to the service performed" was a question of fact. Whether the individual worked for another was not dispositive of whether the individual was engaged in an independent business. The Court disagreed with the appellate court, however, that whether an individual was engaged in an independent trade or business could be determined by applying a nine-factor test to create a presumption of an independent contractor relationship under statute. Instead, the Court held that the determination must be based on a totality of the circumstances test that evaluates the dynamics of the relationship between the putative employee and the employer. The factors listed in the statute might be relevant to that determination, but the statute does not provide an exhaustive list of factors to be considered. The case was remanded to the appellate court to return the case to the Industrial Claim Appeals office for further proceedings. View "Industrial Claim Appeals Office v. Softrock Geological Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case was one of first impression: whether a proposed amendment to the fire department's disciplinary system was subject to collective bargaining under the Charter of the City and County of Denver. Upon review of the Charter, and construing its plain language as a "harmonious and sensible whole," the Supreme Court concluded that Denver had the authority to both draft and implement disciplinary rules, and that that authority was not limited by the firefighters' right to collectively bargain. The court of appeals held that discipline was a term and condition of employment under the Charter and not subject to collective bargaining. The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "City & County of Denver v. Denver Firefighters" on Justia Law

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Respondent Helen Rodriguez injured herself after falling down a flight of stairs at work. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether an "unexplained" fall satisfied the "arising out of" employment requirement of the Workers' Compensation Act. The Court agreed with the appellate court that respondent's unexplained fall was compensable, but it disagreed with the reasoning. The Supreme Court concluded that the appellate court erred when it agreed with respondent's view that her injuries arose out of employment, and held that an unexplained fall necessarily stemmed from a "neutral" risk attributable to neither the employment nor the employee. "Under our longstanding 'but-for' test, such an unexplained fall 'arises out of' employment if the fall would not have occurred but for the fact that the conditions and obligations of employment placed the employee in a position where he or she was injured." View "City of Brighton v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law