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District of Columbia v. Gallagher

July 29, 1999

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
MONICA GALLAGHER, APPELLEE



Before Terry and Ruiz, Associate Judges, and Gallagher, Senior Judge.

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

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Geoffrey M. Alprin, Trial Judge)

Argued November 5, 199

Appellee Monica Gallagher is the former wife of the late David Norman, a retired Judge of the Superior Court at the time of his death in 1995. After Judge Norman died, Ms. Gallagher submitted an application for a survivor annuity to the District of Columbia Office of Personnel. Her application was denied because she and Judge Norman had been divorced in 1987, and the Personnel Office concluded that it was not authorized to award survivor annuities to former spouses of government employees who were divorced before March 16, 1989, the effective date of the District of Columbia Spouse Equity Act, D.C. Code §§ 1-3001 et seq. (1992). The trial court ruled that the District was not precluded from awarding appellee a survivor annuity, and that its failure to do so in this case was an abuse of discretion. The court therefore granted Ms. Gallagher's motion for summary judgment and ordered the District to pay her a survivor annuity. We hold that the Spouse Equity Act bars such payments, and thus we reverse the judgment in Ms. Gallagher's favor and remand with directions to enter judgment for the District.

I.

In May 1973 David Norman was appointed to be a Judge of the Superior Court. He elected to participate in the survivor annuity program established by the District of Columbia Judges' Retirement Fund. See D.C. Code § 1-714 (1992). Under that program, a survivor annuity would be paid upon Judge Norman's death to his wife, Ms. Gallagher, whom he had married in 1968. When he retired from the bench in 1983, Judge Norman chose to continue participating in the program.

On December 29, 1987, Judge Norman and Ms. Gallagher were divorced. The divorce decree stated in part:

"As part of the parties' wishes, each shall maintain all vested and survivorship interests in each other's pension and retirement benefits, as well as any present interest in life and health insurance."

Although the retirement program permitted Judge Norman to withdraw from participation and collect a lump sum upon his divorce, see D.C. Code § 11-1566 (b) (1995), he continued making payments into the fund until he passed away on February 6, 1995.

Two weeks after the Judge's death, Ms. Gallagher submitted an application for a survivor annuity to the District of Columbia Office of Personnel. Until the enactment of the Spouse Equity Act ("the Act"), former spouses of District employees were not eligible to receive retirement benefits. Under the Act, however, the District is now required to award retirement benefits to former spouses in compliance with "qualifying court orders," including divorce decrees. *fn1

Section 1-3003 (b) of the Act states that

"[t]he Mayor shall comply with any qualifying court order that is issued prior to the employee's retirement," while section 1-3003 (c) provides that "[t]he Mayor shall comply with any qualifying court order that is issued after the employee's retirement . . . to the extent it is consistent with any election previously executed at the time of retirement by the employee regarding that former spouse."

An exception to the general requirement of compliance with divorce decrees is found in section 1-3003 (d), which states that the District "is not obligated to comply with qualifying court orders issued prior to March 16, 1989," the effective date of the Act. Citing this provision, the Director of the Office of Personnel denied Ms. Gallagher's application, claiming that she was not entitled to receive an annuity because she and Judge Norman had been divorced in December 1987. Ms. Gallagher filed an appeal with the Mayor's office. When the Mayor failed to act, she filed suit in the Superior Court against the District and the Director of the Office of Personnel, seeking a declaratory judgment establishing her entitlement to a survivor annuity and a mandatory injunction directing the District to award her an annuity.

In granting Ms. Gallagher's motion for summary judgment, the trial court interpreted section 1-3003 (d) as authorizing, though not requiring, the Mayor to grant survivor benefits to former spouses in compliance with pre-Act decrees. Observing that "[t]he purpose of the Spouse Equity Act is to ensure that former spouses, not only widows, receive survivor benefits if that is what a Judge intends," the court concluded that Judge Norman intended the annuity to be paid to Ms. Gallagher. Evidence of his intent was found in the language of the divorce decree and in the fact that the Judge elected not to withdraw from the survivor annuity program after his divorce, even though he neither remarried nor had any dependent children. *fn2 The court also expressed the belief that if the annuity were not awarded to Ms. Gallagher, the District would receive a windfall: "The District should not be allowed to reap a benefit it does not deserve from Judge Norman's failure to realize . . . the intricacies of the Spouse Equity ...


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