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Martin v. District of Columbia Courts

May 11, 2000

REGINALD MARTIN, APPELLANT,
V.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURTS, APPELLEE.



Before Ruiz, Glickman and Washington, Associate Judges.

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

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Ellen Segal Huvelle, Trial Judge)

Argued November 18, 1999

Appellant Reginald Martin petitioned the Superior Court to review the termination of his employment by the District of Columbia Courts ("D.C. Courts"). Martin alleged that his termination was unlawful and in violation of the D.C. Courts' Comprehensive Personnel Policies ("CPP") governing adverse actions against court employees. *fn1 The trial court dismissed Martin's petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We reverse. We hold that the Superior Court has jurisdiction to review adverse actions against non-judicial court employees who have exhausted their administrative remedies and who allege that the proceedings against them did not comply with the requirements of the CPP.

I. Factual and Procedural Background *fn2

Appellant Martin was an accounting technician with supervisory responsibilities in the Finance Revenue Branch of the Financial Operations Division of the D.C. Courts. The Finance Revenue Branch operates cashier windows located in various divisions of the Superior Court and collects and safeguards fees, fines and other payments. Martin worked as a cashier at a window in the vicinity of the Landlord and Tenant (L&T) clerk's office.

During the fall of 1995, the Financial Operations Division developed a reorganization plan for the Finance Revenue Branch. The reorganization was to be overseen by Deputy Fiscal Officer John Andrews. On October 4, 1995, Andrews met with Martin in the public corridor outside the L&T clerk's office to explain the reorganization and the anticipated changes in Martin's duties. As their conversation progressed, Martin became agitated and expressed vociferously his opposition to the plan. When Andrews continued to reason with him, Martin responded with a threat of violence: "Get out of my face before you are hurt. We can take this outside." Martin then strode away toward the cashiers' room. Not wanting Martin, in his agitated state, to be in the cashiers room where money was kept out in the open, Andrews ordered Martin not to go there and instead to go home for the day. Martin defied this order, entered the cashiers room and sat down at his desk.

Andrews and Charles Cooper, who was Martin's immediate Branch supervisor, summoned security guards and the Deputy Executive Officer of the D.C. Courts, William Rogers. By the time they arrived, Martin was belligerent and uttering loud profanities. He eventually surrendered his identification badge and keys and was escorted out of the building. Martin was placed on administrative leave with pay until he was terminated on March 7, 1996, for insubordination and making threats to fellow employees.

Martin appealed his termination pursuant to the procedures set forth in the CPP. A hearing was held on June 3, 1996, and the hearing officer issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law on July 3, 1996. She found that Martin had physically threatened Andrews and committed insubordination by entering and remaining in the cashiers' room. In addition, the hearing officer found that these actions "were not isolated or unique incidents but the continuance of a pattern of behavior of some longevity." Based on the seriousness of Martin's conduct, heightened by his supervisory role with the attendant effects on employee morale and the integrity of court operations, the hearing officer found that termination was an appropriate sanction. *fn3 The Executive Officer of the D.C. Courts, Ulysses B. Hammond, accepted the hearing officer's recommendation on July 12, 1996.

Martin requested that the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration ("Joint Committee") review the decision to terminate him. The Joint Committee did not grant this request. Martin then filed a petition for review in the Superior Court on September 24, 1997. Martin sought reinstatement solely on the ground that the Executive Officer was disqualified under CPP Nos. 1011 and 1012 from making the final decision to remove him, because, Martin alleged, the Executive Officer was a complaining witness against him. *fn4

The D.C. Courts, represented by the Corporation Counsel, moved to dismiss Martin's petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction to review a decision of the Executive Officer made in accordance with the CPP. The trial court granted the motion, holding that under the CPP, court personnel are not entitled to judicial review of adverse employment decisions. *fn5

II. Discussion

Martin's appeal presents a narrow question of law, which we review de novo *fn6 : whether the Superior Court has subject matter jurisdiction over a claim by a non-judicial court employee, who has exhausted his administrative remedies, that his termination violated procedural requirements contained in the D.C. Courts' Comprehensive Personnel Policies. This court implicitly assumed an affirmative answer to that question in Romansky v. Polansky, 466 A.2d 1253 (D.C. 1983), when we upheld the rejection of a comparable claim on its merits without inquiring into the jurisdiction of the Superior Court to entertain it. But because the jurisdictional question was neither raised nor addressed in Romansky, that case does not settle the matter. "`[W]hen questions of jurisdiction have been passed on in prior decisions sub silentio, this Court has never considered itself bound when a subsequent case finally brings the jurisdictional issue before us.'" Murphy v. McCloud, 650 A.2d 202, 205 (D.C. 1994) (quoting Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 533 n.5 (1974)). *fn7

The Superior Court is "a court of general jurisdiction with the power to adjudicate any civil action at law or in equity involving local law." Powell v. Washington Land Co., Inc., 684 A.2d 769, 770 (D.C. 1996) (quoting Andrade v. Jackson, 401 A.2d 990, 992 (D.C.1979)); see also District of Columbia v. Group Ins. Admin., 633 A.2d 2, 13 (D.C.1993); D.C. Code § 11-921 (a) (1995). The Superior Court's jurisdiction under this provision presumptively extends to claims, such as the one Martin presents, for equitable relief from allegedly unlawful actions by public officials. See District of Columbia v. Sierra Club, 670 A.2d 354, 357-59 (D.C. 1996). In numerous past cases, moreover, we have recognized explicitly that the general equitable jurisdiction of the Superior Court extends to challenges by public employees of official decisions affecting their tenure. See, e.g., Davis v. University of the District of Columbia, 603 A.2d 849, 853 (D.C. 1992); Kegley v. District of Columbia, 440 A.2d 1013 (D.C. 1982). *fn8 A "strong presumption" exists in favor of judicial reviewability which may be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence of a contrary legislative intent. Sierra Club, 670 A.2d at 358 (quoting People's Counsel v. Public Serv. Comm'n of the District of Columbia, 474 A.2d 1274, 1278 n.2 (D.C. 1984) (concurring opinion), and citing Abbott Labs. v. ...


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