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District of Columbia v. Brown

November 04, 1999


Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Reid, Associate Judge, and Gallagher, Senior Judge.

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

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Geoffrey M. Alprin, Trial Judge)

Argued November 4, 1998

This case raises the issue of whether the District of Columbia is required to pay interest on a back pay award to appellee James E. Brown, who was found by the District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals ("OEA") to have been unlawfully terminated from a position with the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). Mr. Brown sought enforcement of the OEA decision in the trial court and that court determined, inter alia, that he was entitled to interest on his back pay award under a 1987 amendment to the Federal Back Pay Act, 5 U.S.C. § 5596 (1994) ("FBPA"). *fn2 The District contends that the trial court erred in awarding interest under the 1987 amendment because "relevant provisions of the District's Home Rule Act[, D.C. Code §§ 1-201 et seq. (1999),] and Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act[, §§ 1-601 et seq., ("CMPA")] make the [FBPA] applicable to District employees only in the form in which it existed before relevant provisions of the [CMPA] took effect, at which time the [FBPA] did not allow for interest on back pay awards." We reverse the trial court's award of interest, and hold that District employees, including those hired before 1980, are not entitled to interest on back pay awarded under the FBPA.


Mr. Brown commenced employment with the District government on April 2, 1979 as General Counsel of DCPS. On May 3, 1981, he left this position because he was subject to disbarrment proceedings. However, he was offered, and accepted, a temporary appointment as Special Assistant to the Superintendent, which did not require bar membership. He was disbarred in August 1981. The temporary Special Assistant position was later abolished because it was unauthorized. Since Mr. Brown was unqualified to resume his position as General Counsel due to his disbarrment, DCPS terminated his employment in April 1982.

Mr. Brown appealed his termination to the OEA in September 1982. After numerous administrative and court proceedings, an OEA hearing examiner concluded that Mr. Brown had acquired permanent employee status with the school system that was independent of his initial position as General Counsel; and thus, issued an Initial Decision reversing his termination on April 15, 1991. *fn3 The examiner ordered DCPS to: 1) reinstate Mr. Brown to a position equivalent to General Counsel; 2) restore all pay and benefits that he lost; and 3) file with the OEA documents showing compliance with this order within 30 days from the date of the final decision. On August 3, 1993, OEA affirmed, in part, the hearing examiner's decision, but modified the reinstatement provision to require Brown's restoration to his previous position as special assistant, if available, or alternatively, to a position equal in grade, pay, and status. When DCPS failed to reinstate Mr. Brown within 30 days of the decision, the OEA Board issued an October 5, 1993 order directing DCPS to submit a written statement concerning the status of the school system's compliance with the OEA order. Three days later, Mr. Brown filed a complaint in the trial court against the District seeking: 1) enforcement of the administrative order authorizing his reinstatement, back pay and benefits; 2) interest on his back pay award; and 3) attorney's fees. He also sought compensation for the additional tax liability *fn4 and alleged emotional distress resulting from the litigation.

On February 1, 1995, the trial court ruled that Mr. Brown was entitled to attorney's fees for the court proceedings, but granted the District's motion for summary judgment regarding his claims for: 1) attorney's fees for obtaining the administrative order (he failed to submit his request in a timely fashion); and 2) interest on his back pay. *fn5 Following consideration of Mr. Brown's motion to alter or amend the summary judgment with regard to the interest issue, the trial court concluded that it had erred in its previous decision, and issued a new order filed April 18, 1995 approving interest on Mr. Brown's back pay award. The court interpreted the FBPA amendment as authorizing interest on all decisions which became final on or after December 22, 1987. *fn6 Therefore, according to the trial court, Mr. Brown was entitled to interest on his back pay because the OEA's final decision awarding him interest was made on July 29, 1993.

On May 25, 1995, the District filed a motion to reconsider the new order, arguing that the Council of the District of Columbia only incorporated provisions of the FBPA as the Act existed prior to January 1, 1980, and thus, superseded the applicability of any subsequent amendments to the FBPA, including the 1987 amendment authorizing interest. On June 21, 1995, the trial court denied the motion to reconsider, noting that this court has "foreclosed application of the [FBPA] in such a 'piecemeal' fashion." The trial court further stated that the Home Rule Act requires "the continuing applicability of Federal law, including subsequent amendments, until District law provides equivalent benefits, an event which has not yet occurred." After considering both parties' trial memoranda and supplemental material, the trial court issued an order on March 4, 1996 awarding Mr. Brown $340,216.43 in interest on back pay *fn7 and $18,778.54 in attorney's fees; and denying his claims for damages for emotional distress and additional tax liability. The District appealed the trial court's April 1995 decision, which was reaffirmed in its March 1996 order, awarding interest on back pay under the 1987 amendment to the FBPA.


Statutory Framework

Prior to home rule, the FBPA specifically applied to District government employees and entitled them to back pay in cases concerning any "unjustified or unwarranted" personnel action. 5 U.S.C. § 5596 (b)(1)(A)(i). In the 1973 Home Rule Act, Congress directed the District to establish its own comprehensive personnel system as a replacement for the existing personnel system. Zenian v. District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals, 598 A.2d 1161, 1163 (D.C. 1991) (citing District of Columbia v. Thompson, 593 A.2d 621, 632 (D.C. 1991)). Congress set forth its mandate and policy in D.C. Code § 1-242 which states in pertinent part:

(2) . . . All actions affecting [District] personnel . . . shall, until such time as legislation is enacted by the Council superseding such laws and establishing a permanent District government merit system, pursuant to paragraph (3) of this section, continue to be subject to the provisions of acts of Congress relating to the appointment, promotion, discipline, separation, and ...

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