The Maine Workers Compensation Board is not subject to the more strict rules of evidence governing other courts and should be open to evidence from a variety of sources so long as it is sufficiently reliable, the state Supreme Court reminded in a recent ruling involving a Scarborough police officer who sued over wrongful termination.
In Michael Maietta v. Town of Scarborough the high court said a state workers’ compensation hearing officer erred when he excluded evidence from arbitrated proceedings under the police department’s collective bargaining agreement that found Maietta had not been wrongfully dismissed.
The court vacated and remanded the case for a new hearing.
Michael Maietta was employed as a full-time police officer by the Town of Scarborough beginning in 1996. He also worked in his family’s construction business. In 2000 and 2001, Maietta took several leaves of absence from his town position due to depression or stress-related conditions. Before February 1, 2002, Maietta had exhausted all of his sick leave and other leave time.
On February 1, 2002, Maietta called in saying he would be out indefinitely on a doctor’s order. The town attempted to schedule a meeting to discuss Maietta’s absence. Instead, Maietta left for Florida on a family vacation, without his leave being authorized.
After Maietta returned from Florida, he had a lengthy meeting with his supervisor after which his employment was terminated for excessive absenteeism.
Maietta filed a claim pursuant to the police department’s collective bargaining agreement asserting unjustified termination and a claim before the Workers’ Compensation Board asserting wrongful discrimination.
The improper termination claim under the town’s collective bargaining agreement proceeded to arbitration. After a hearing, an arbitration panel found that Maietta had not been wrongfully terminated.
The evidentiary hearing on the discrimination claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act began in November 2002 and continued on several dates into April 2003. During the hearing, the town offered into evidence the labor arbitration findings that there had been no wrongful termination. The hearing officer allowed the labor arbitration decision to be included in the record as an offer of proof. However, the hearing officer sustained Maietta’s objection to including the arbitration agreement as part of the record upon which a decision would be based and explicitly stated that he would refuse to consider it, stating: “[i]ts better to just keep the whole thing out.”
In June 2003, the hearing officer issued a decision that denied Maietta’s petition for an award under the Workers’ Compensation Act, concluding that his claimed mental stress injury was not compensable. But he granted Maietta’s petition to remedy discrimination, concluding that Maietta had been discriminated against for asserting a workers’ compensation claim.
Both Maietta and the town filed motions for further findings of fact and conclusions of law.
In September 2003, the hearing officer reissued his earlier decision amended to include several sentences addressing the requested findings of fact. Among other things, the hearing officer’s findings indicated that “[b]y and large the discipline was taken in good faith by the employer.” The hearing officer determined that Maietta was entitled to back wages of $830 a week and fringe benefits from June 14, 2002, until such time as he is reinstated or rehired by the town. Maietta was also awarded attorney fees. The town appealed.
According to the court, the key question for determination on the discrimination claim before the hearing officer was whether the motivation for Maietta’s termination “was rooted substantially or significantly in the employee’s exercise of his rights under the Workers’ Compensation Act.” The court emphasized that it looks to the motivation for an adverse employment action to determine if a discrimination claim has been established.
Addressing the discipline of Maietta for excessive absenteeism, the hearing officer found that “by and large the discipline was taken in good faith by the employer.” But the high court maintained that the decision of the labor arbitration panel, after a fully litigated arbitration proceeding, was obviously relevant to the question of the motivation for the discipline of Maietta. While it would decide whether the labor arbitration decision should control the workers’ compensation hearing officer’s decision, “it is certainly relevant to inform the critical decision that the hearing officer had to make regarding the motivation for the termination decision,” the court wrote.
An administrative hearing officer, including hearing officers of the Workers’ Compensation Board, is not subject to the stricter rules of evidence applicable in some court proceedings, the decision noted. Instead, a hearing officer “shall admit evidence if it is the kind of evidence on which reasonable persons are accustomed to relying in the conduct of serious affairs.”
Under this standard, relevant evidence may only be excluded in a workers’ compensation hearing if it is unduly repetitive or if it insufficiently reliable.
“The evidence of the labor arbitrator’s decision was relevant to the central issue before the hearing officer, it was reliable, having been the product of a litigated arbitration proceeding, and it was not repetitious or time consuming. In the circumstances, its exclusion was error, and that error was not harmless, as the excluded evidence related to the critical contested issue in the administrative proceeding,” the court decided.
The court also found that the hearing officer compounded the error by failing to make any finding as to whether Maietta’s termination was substantially or significantly motivated by his assertion of the workers’ compensation claim.
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