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Sickle v. Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

March 9, 2018

David Sickle and Matthew W. Elliott, Appellants
v.
Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions, LLC, also known as Torres Aes, LLC and Scott Torres, Appellees

          Argued May 16, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:11-cv-02224)

          Scott J. Bloch argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellants.

          Rachel Hirsch argued the cause for appellees. With her on the brief was A. Jeff Ifrah.

          Before: Rogers, Srinivasan, and Millett, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          MILLETT, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         The Defense Base Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1651, establishes a workers' compensation scheme for civilian government employees and contractors injured on overseas military bases. This case addresses the preemptive reach of that scheme. Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions terminated both Matthew Elliott's and David Sickle's contracts after Elliott sought workers' compensation benefits under the Defense Base Act, and Sickle medically documented Elliott's claim. Elliott and Sickle sued the company for breach of contract and common-law torts. We hold that the Defense Base Act preempts Elliott's tort claims because they derive from his efforts to obtain Defense Base Act benefits. The Act, however, does not preempt Sickle's claims or Elliott's contract claim because those injuries arose independently of any claim for workers' compensation benefits.

         I

         A

         Congress enacted the Defense Base Act ("Base Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 1651, to provide workers' compensation benefits to civilian government and contracted employees stationed at overseas military bases, id. § 1651(a). The Act does so by extending to those employees key provisions of the workers' compensation benefit program established in the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act ("Longshore Act"), 33 U.S.C. §§ 901 et seq., and by broadly incorporating the terms and provisions of the Longshore Act "[e]xcept as herein modified." 42 U.S.C. § 1651(a).

         In addition to providing a comprehensive compensation scheme for workplace injuries, the Base Act, via the Longshore Act, expressly prohibits retaliation against those who seek the statutorily authorized benefits. 33 U.S.C. § 948a; see 42 U.S.C. § 1651(a). The Longshore Act specifically provides that "[i]t shall be unlawful for any employer * * * to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against an employee as to his employment because such employee has claimed or attempted to claim compensation from such employer." 33 U.S.C. § 948a. The Longshore Act also prohibits retaliating in any way against an employee "because he has testified or is about to testify in a proceeding under this chapter." Id. Violators can be assessed penalties ranging from $1, 000 to $5, 000. Id. In addition, improperly dismissed employees may seek reinstatement and back-pay to the extent that they remain capable of performing their prior duties. Id.

         In addition to its substantive provisions, the Base Act contains an exclusivity provision limiting the scope of an employer's potential liability to an employee who collects workers' compensation benefits. Specifically, the Act provides that the "liability of an employer * * * shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of such employer, contractor, subcontractor, or subordinate contractor to his employees (and their dependents) * * *, under the work[ers'] compensation law of any State, Territory, or other jurisdiction, irrespective of the place where the contract of hire of any such employee may have been made or entered into." 42 U.S.C. § 1651(c).

         The Longshore Act contains a somewhat differently worded exclusivity provision, directing that "[t]he liability of an employer * * * shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of such employer to the employee * * * on account of such injury or death." 33 U.S.C. § 905(a). The statute offers just one exception: "[I]f an employer fails to secure payment of compensation * * *, an injured employee * * * may elect to claim compensation under the chapter, or to maintain an action at law or in admiralty for damages on account of such injury or death." Id.

         B

         This dispute started at Forward Operating Base Shield in Baghdad, Iraq. In 2010, both Matthew Elliott and David Sickle worked as subcontractors for Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions ("Torres Solutions"), a military defense contractor providing security assistance to the United States Department of Defense and Department of State. Elliott worked as a kennel master for Torres Solutions, overseeing the base's canine unit. Sickle worked on site as a base medic. Both Sickle's and Elliott's employment contracts required Torres Solutions to provide twenty-eight days' notice in the event of a termination without cause. Alternatively, the agreements permitted either side to sever the contract for cause if, after thirty days' written notice, "the [c]ause remain[ed] uncured." J.A. 122, 133.[1]

         On March 15, 2010, both Elliott and Sickle found themselves on "sandbag duty" in the kennel area. After lifting several heavy sandbags, Elliott felt a pop in his back followed by a sharp radicular pain running down his leg. Sickle, as the resident medic, examined Elliott and diagnosed his injury as a disc herniation. After that initial examination, Elliott resumed his duties as kennel master. But continuing pain sent him back to Sickle for care twice more in April. On both occasions, Sickle provided temporary treatment, but recommended that Elliott return to the United States for more advanced medical care. At the end of April, Elliott took Sickle's advice and returned to the United States to obtain further treatment for his back. Elliott was hopeful that he would be able to return to the base in mid-May to complete his contract assignment.

         That hope was dashed after Torres Solutions learned that Elliott was seeking workers' compensation benefits under the Base Act for his back injury. On May 9th, one week before his planned return to the base, Elliott received an email from Scott Torres, the principal and owner of Torres Solutions, informing him that he was no longer needed as base kennel master and, for that reason, would not be permitted to complete his contract term. That termination decision was made without affording Elliott the thirty days' advance notice required by the contract.[2]

         Newly terminated, Elliott sought the continued payment of workers' compensation benefits under the Base Act, but his claim was rejected. On May 12, 2010, Elliott received a fax containing an undated medical note drafted by Sickle that described Elliott's injuries, Sickle's efforts at on-site treatment, and Sickle's recommendation that Elliott receive an MRI as soon as possible. Armed with that evidence and a lawyer, Elliott successfully obtained benefits under the Base Act and underwent spinal surgery in July 2010. According to Elliott, Torres Solutions represented to its insurance representatives that Elliott had falsified his benefits claim, and that was why the company had terminated his contract.

         Meanwhile, on June 1, 2010, Matthew Sickle signed an additional one-year contract with Torres Solutions to continue his work as a base medic. According to Sickle, soon after signing this agreement, Torres Solutions' affiliates began to "threaten and intimidate" him, insisting that he recant his support for Elliott's workers' compensation claim. J.A. 128. Sickle refused, and Scott Torres sent him home for thirty days to "think things over." J.A. 19. When Sickle stuck to his guns, Torres Solutions terminated Sickle's contract. Like Elliott, Sickle's termination was abrupt, taking immediate effect without the contractually required thirty-day warning.

         C

         Elliott and Sickle jointly filed suit against both Scott Torres, individually, and Torres Solutions (collectively, "Torres"). Their amended complaint alleged that Torres had improperly discharged them in retaliation for Elliott's workers' compensation claim. They asserted: (1) discrimination and retaliatory discharge in violation of the Longshore Act, 33 U.S.C. § 948a, as incorporated into the Base Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1651(a); (2) breach of contract and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing under District of Columbia common law; (3) common-law retaliatory discharge for the filing of a workers' compensation claim; and (4) conspiracy and what the complaint ...


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