In Fluellyn v. D.C. Department of Employment Services & Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the D.C. Court of Appeals recently resolved a split between the D.C. Office of Workers Compensation (“OWC”) and the Administrative Hearing Division (AHD) regarding the award of attorneys’ fees in workers’ compensation claims. 

The petitioner and his employer in that case, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), participated in an informal conference at the OWC to resolve the petitioner’s workers’ compensation claim.  The OWC recommended that WMATA pay workers’ compensation benefits to the petitioner; WMATA then applied to the AHD for a formal hearing.  After some discovery, but prior to any decision by the AHD, the parties reached a settlement agreement and WMATA filed a motion to withdraw its application for a formal hearing, which the AHD granted. 

Although WMATA paid the petitioner past-due disability benefits and began paying benefits as the OWC had recommended, the petitioner filed a claim for attorneys’ fees against WMATA with both the OWC and the AHD for the fees related to proceedings at each of the respective entities.  The OWC denied petitioner’s claim on the basis that no formal hearing had occurred; the AHD, on the other hand, granted petitioner’s claim on the basis that WMATA’s application for a formal hearing satisfied D.C. law’s requirement that a petitioner be “awarded” workers’ compensation benefits before he may be entitled to attorneys’ fees.  Each party appealed to the Compensation Review Board, which ruled in favor of WMATA and against the petitioner. 

On appeal to the D.C. Court of Appeals, the court agreed with the OWC and the Compensation Review Board that the petitioner was not entitled to attorneys’ fees, rejecting the petitioner’s argument that “an ‘award’ requires only that greater compensation in fact be secured for the employee after representation by an attorney, whether or not it is the result of a formal compensation order.”  Rather, the court held that the clear language of the statute requires that the employer be “compelled” to pay benefits before any obligation to pay attorneys’ fees arises, and that because the parties voluntarily resolved their dispute without a formal decision from the AHD, the petitioner was not entitled to attorneys’ fees.

In light of the Fluellyn court’s holding, employers in D.C. should carefully evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a worker’s compensation claim before deciding whether to apply for a formal hearing at the AHD.  As this case shows, pursuing informal proceedings and/or voluntary settlements to resolve workers’ compensation claims may prevent the employer from ultimately having to pay a petitioner’s attorneys’ fees, thus reducing the employer’s overall expense of handling such claims.