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HUTCHINSON v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

April 30, 1998

RONALD A. HUTCHINSON, APPELLANT,
V.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA OFFICE OF EMPLOYEE APPEALS, APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, RICHARD S. SALZMAN, J. [710 A2d Page 228]

Before Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Newman, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge:

[710 A2d Page 229]

Appellant Ronald A. Hutchinson lost his job with the District of Columbia Fire Department after he allegedly failed to enter an emergency 911 call into the Department's computer system. An administrative judge at the Office of Employee Appeals ("OEA") determined that the Department acted properly in firing Hutchinson. Appellant filed a petition for review with the full OEA, which was denied, and then filed a petition for review with the Superior Court, which also was denied. We affirm.

I.

A. The 911 Call.

Hutchinson worked as a fire communications operator with the District of Columbia Fire Department. His responsibilities included answering emergency 911 calls and entering the incoming information into the Department's computer system so that ambulances could be dispatched as appropriate. On the afternoon of May 25, 1990, a caller spoke with Hutchinson and requested an ambulance for a woman suffering from symptoms of hypertension. No ambulance arrived, and the caller had to arrange for private transportation and treatment. A Department investigation into the incident revealed that the call had not been entered into the computer system. Hutchinson maintained that the computer malfunctioned, but the Department determined that he had failed to enter the call properly.

B. The Adverse-Action Procedures.

1. The Agency.

In an official letter, Deputy Fire Chief Philip Matthews, the administrator of the Communications Division, proposed that Hutchinson be removed for "inefficiency," specifically, the "[f]ailure to satisfactorily perform one or more major duties of his . . . position." See D.C.Code § 1-617.1(d)(3) (1992) (inefficiency is cause for removal); D.C. Personnel Regs. § 1603.1(c), 34 D.C. Reg. 1845, 1850 (1987) (same). In the parlance of the D.C. Personnel Regulations, Matthews acted as the "proposing official" and his recommendation of a removal was the "proposed penalty." See D.C. Personnel Regs. §§ 1609.1, 1609.5, 34 D.C. Reg. at 1854. This was Hutchinson's third instance of inefficiency; *fn1 removal was therefore an appropriate penalty in the "Table of Appropriate Penalties," D.C. Personnel Regs. § 1618.1, 34 D.C. Reg. at 1863.

The Department appointed a "disinterested designee," Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Quander, Jr., to review the proposed action before making a recommendation to the "deciding official," Fire Chief R. Alfred. See D.C. Personnel Regs. §§ 1613.1-1613.3, 34 D.C. Reg. at 1857. Quander recommended a ninety-day suspension. Pursuant to D.C. Personnel Regs. § 1614.1, 34 D.C. Reg. at 1858, Alfred evaluated Quander's report and issued his final decision: that the proposed penalty of removal was appropriate and Hutchinson should be removed. [710 A2d Page 230]

2. The Two Stages of OEA Review.

Hutchinson exercised his right under D.C.Code § 1-606.3(a) to appeal this adverse action to the OEA. See also OEA R. 604.1(b), 39 D.C. Reg. 7404, 7406 (1992). In the first stage of OEA review, an administrative judge, Blanca E. Torres, held a de novo evidentiary hearing at which various witnesses testified. See OEA R. 628.1, 628.2, 39 D.C. Reg. at 7421. In her initial decision, the administrative judge found that the Department had proven that Hutchinson's inefficiency, and not a computer malfunction, was the reason the call was lost. The administrative judge also determined that removal was an appropriate penalty.

On January 25, 1994, Hutchinson initiated the second stage of OEA proceedings by filing a petition for review with the full OEA. *fn2 See OEA R. 636.2, 39 D.C. Reg. at 7425 ("[t]he initial decision shall not become final if any party files a petition for review"); see also OEA R. 637, 39 D.C. Reg. at 7426-27 (governing review procedures). Specifically, Hutchinson asked that the administrative judge's initial decision be "reconsidered" in light of the decision of another administrative judge concerning another Fire Department employee. The OEA denied the petition in a twelve-page opinion and the administrative judge's initial order became the OEA's final order. See OEA R. 636.3, 39 D.C. Reg. at 7425.

3. The Courts.

From this final order, on August 22, 1994, Hutchinson appealed to the Superior Court, alleging errors at both stages of the OEA proceedings. See D.C.Code § 1-606.1(d) ("A final decision of the full Office [of Employee Appeals], relating to an appeal brought to it from a hearing examiner, shall be appealable to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia."); *fn3 OEA R. 637.10, 39 D.C. Reg. at 7427 ("Any employee or agency may appeal a final decision of the Office to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia."). The ...


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