Friday, March 11, 2011

Metro in a Legal Nutshell

Any law-talking folks feel free to chime in on this one. Had to put it together on the fly.

This case, decided yesterday, provides some interesting insights into why Metro sucks and probably spends unimaginable amounts of your money in legal fees.

Belynda Bowman-Cook worked for Metro for "several years" as a "helper." In "late June 2008," she claimed to be sick and was never again seen at Metro.

According to Metro rules, when an employee is absent from the job for medical reasons, they must “provide a current telephone number and address to the supervisor, be available to receive telephone calls at this telephone number,” and “accept mail sent by [WMATA] to this address.”

On July 10, fairly quickly (for Metro) after Bowman-Cook's disappearance, Metro said it sent her a certified letter to her sister's home (the address Bowman-Cook provided and where she was living) saying she needed to provide documentation of her medical absence to her supervisor.

Metro said it never heard anything, and the letter was returned as undeliverable.

Then, sometime between July 10 and Aug. 29, Metro said it sent another certified letter to her advising that her work schedule changed.

Nothing from Bowman-Cook--again undeliverable, according to Metro.

On Aug. 29, Metro said it sent another certified letter warning Bowman-Cook that she risked "discharge."

It, too, was returned, according to Metro.

On Sept. 5, Metro said it sent Bowman-Cook an email saying it was going to send another letter and that she should follow the instructions in that letter.

This time, on Sept 8, Bowman-Cook responded with an angry email:
PLEASE DO NOT CALL MY HOUSE OR E-MAIL ME AGAIN! I am in treatment and I am unaware of a return to duty date. I do not need your continued harrassment (sic) or threats concerning my employment. Please, Please leave me alone.
On Sept. 29, Metro said it sent her a certified letter telling her she was fired for “fail[ing] to accept mail as she is required to do at the address that she had given WMATA as her current address.”

It would appear as if it took Metro three months to fire an employee behaving in a way most reasonable people would think was a clear violation of Metro's rules.

But there's more.

Bowman-Cook, despite her incapacitating illness, applied to get unemployment benefits immediately after her firing, but was ruled ineligible because she had been fired for misconduct.

Despite being too weakened to receive mail, she summoned the energy to appeal that decision.

She lost, and the initial ruling read:
"Considering the record as a whole, I conclude that Employer has proven that Claimant was discharged for misconduct. Although Claimant’s sister testified credibly that Claimant required care and assistance when she was ill, the evidence presented at the hearing does not establish that Claimant was actually so incapacitated from June 30, 2008, through September 25, 2008, that she was incapable of accepting letters sent by Employer to her then-current address."
How ill was Bowman-Cook?

According to her sister sister "she was suffering from major depression throughout the period of her absence from work." She was not able to handle her business, that her bills went "slacking" and that her medications “made her sleep really hard,” so that the sister “had to wake [Bowman-Cook] up to even attempt to feed her.”

That didn't seem to matter, as the crux of the initial decision seems to have been that Bowman-Cook seemed to intentionally refuse contact with Metro--a violation meriting termination.

It would appear clear cut, but there's even more.

Bowman-Cook, who was too sick to receive mail, again summoned the energy and appealed that decision to the DC Court of Appeals and won.

Among the issues cited in the reversal is that Bowman-Cook said she had been in contact with someone in Metro's "medical office" and apparently had notes from that person saying she was ill and could not work. These had not been considered in the initial appeal.

(One has to wonder what kind of medical professional would prescribe medication that would render someone incapable of the onerous task of receiving mail over the course of months.)

The court also ruled that Metro had failed to show Bowman-Cooke had refused contact with Metro intentionally.

This despite Bowman-Cook being "aware of at least one of the certified mail notices," and even accompanying her sister to the post office to try to retrieve a letter several weeks after a delivery attempt.

Bowman-Cook's sister admitted she "received several notices from the post office about certified letters for [Bowman-Cook], but she was too busy caring for [Bowman-Cook] to try to retrieve them, and she does not generally retrieve [Bowman-Cook's] mail anyway.”

It really was the least she could do.

Anyway, the appeal court said the initial ruling "erred in determining that [Bowman-Cook's] actions constituted misconduct without allowing her to present evidence about communications, regarding her illness, that she and her representatives had with WMATA during the period in question."

Additionally, according to the decision, to uphold the denial of benefits [it must be found that] 'the existence of the employer’s rule was known to the employee,' that 'the employer’s rule is reasonable,' and that 'the employer’s rule is consistently enforced by the employer.'"

The decision said Metro, always a stickler for details, did not present "evidence to show that it consistently enforced its rule about employee acceptance of mail during a medical absence."

Metro, when asked, would not comment on the case.

In June or July of 2009 a "Belynda Bowman" lost a grievance on a "promotion issue." It's unclear when the greivance was filed or how long they take to process.

Given the obscene dysfunction that consumes Metro, it's not inconceivable that Metro was considering promoting someone who'd not been at work since 2008.

Would it be shocking to find out she has been getting paid this whole time?

Other items:
DC may hold back funding if late-night service is cut (WTOP)
Hard to believe Metro hasn't done this before (WaPo)
Metro's plan for Blue/Yellow split (WMATA)
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