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Dist. of Columbia v. Stokes

November 21, 2001

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLANT, *FN1
v.
RONALD L. STOKES, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia MPA32-98 (Hon. Susan R. Winfield, Trial Judge *fn2 )

Before Steadman, Schwelb, and Washington, Associate Judges.

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

Argued October 31, 2001

This appeal arises from appellee Ronald L. Stokes' claim that the abolition of his statutorily created position as Chief of the District's Office of Taxicabs constituted an unlawful reduction in force (RIF). The Office of Employee Appeals (OEA) held that the separation of Stokes from government service was unlawful, but granted only limited relief. On March 22, 2000, in what we shall call Order No. 1, the trial judge held that the remedy authorized by the OEA was inadequate, and she remanded the case to the OEA with instructions that Stokes be reinstated and receive full back pay and benefits from the time of the RIF to the present. The District of Columbia did not appeal from Order No. 1, and on May 31, 2000, the OEA issued an order implementing the trial judge's directive.

On June 15, 2000, the District, invoking Super. Ct. Civ. R. 60 (b)(6) and "the equitable powers of this [c]court," filed a motion for relief from Order No. 1. The District alleged, inter alia, that on January 22, 1998, Stokes had been convicted in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia of several counts of criminal conduct committed in his capacity as Chief of the Office of Taxicabs, including receipt of a gratuity by a public official, *fn3 first degree theft, *fn4 receipt of a bribe by a public official, *fn5 and acceptance of a bribe by a public servant. *fn6 The District further alleged that on June 10, 1998, Stokes had been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for sixty months and fined $75,000. The District requested that the court "exercise its equitable powers to permit the record to be reopened [for additional fact-finding] to reflect [Stokes'] subsequent indictment and conviction for abusing the position for which he now seeks retroactive compensation . . . ." Stokes responded to the District's motion, arguing that "since the case was remanded to the Office of Employee Appeals, [the Superior Court] no longer has jurisdiction of this matter." Stokes also contended that the facts relating to his indictment and conviction, although widely publicized and known to representatives of the District of Columbia, had not been presented to the OEA, and therefore could not properly be asserted before the reviewing court.

On September 25, 2000, the trial judge, in what we shall call Order No. 2, denied the District's motion on jurisdictional grounds. She wrote, in pertinent part, as follows:

[I]t appearing that this court is without jurisdiction to decide the instant motion, it is . . . [o]rdered [that] the Motion for Relief from Judgment be, and the same hereby is denied.

The District has appealed from Order No. 2 and has asked this court to reverse the trial judge's decision and to hold that Stokes "is not entitled to any remedy" in his RIF action. We conclude, however, that the only issue properly before us is whether the trial judge erred in holding that she lacked jurisdiction over the District's motion. We hold that, because the Superior Court was acting in an appellate capacity, it had jurisdiction to decide whether its mandate should be recalled in the interests of justice.

I.

Ronald L. Stokes became Chief of the Office of Taxicabs in 1987. During his tenure of that position, he allegedly sold taxicab drivers' licenses (hack faces) to unqualified persons in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes. It was this conduct that led to his criminal convictions. On April 14, 1995, in a personnel action which was not predicated on his criminal activity, Stokes was separated from government service pursuant to a RIF. Stokes petitioned the OEA for reinstatement, back pay, and other benefits, contending that his separation was illegal.

On December 4, 1997, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) of the OEA found that Stokes' position was mandated by statute and not subject to abolition by RIF. The District asked the "full Board" of the OEA to review the ALJ's decision. On November 9, 1998, the Board issued a decision in which it sustained the ALJ's ruling that the RIF was unlawful, but limited the relief available to Stokes:

Employee's entitlement to restoration to his position and back pay and benefits shall be deemed to have been terminated on April 9, 1997, the effective date of D.C. [Act] 11-360 [D.C. Law 11-198]. This law amended D.C. Code section 40-1712(a) by deleting the Office of Chief of Taxicabs as a mandatory statutory position.

Stokes appealed to the Superior Court pursuant to D.C. Code § 1-606.3 (d) (1981), which provides that the Superior Court shall act as an appellate tribunal vis-à-vis decisions of the OEA. *fn7 On March 22, 2000, in Order No. 1, the trial judge sustained Stokes' appeal and reinstated the ALJ's decision, holding that the enactment in 1997 of the statute abolishing the Office of Chief of Taxicabs as a mandatory statutory position did not automatically reactivate the original invalid RIF, nor did it terminate Stokes' right to back pay and benefits. The judge reasoned that in order to separate Stokes from government service pursuant to a reduction in force, the District was obligated to start the process once again and to provide Stokes, inter alia, with a new notice of termination. As previously noted, the judge held that Stokes was entitled to full pay and benefits from April 15, 1995 to the present. *fn8 She remanded the case to the OEA with directions to implement her order - a directive with which, as we have seen, the OEA complied on May 31, 2000.

On June 15, 2000, almost three months after Order No. 1 was issued, and fifteen days after the OEA issued its order implementing the trial judge's directive, the District filed a motion in the Superior Court for relief from judgment. This motion was the first submission in this case, either before the OEA or in the Superior Court, that contained any mention of Stokes' criminal convictions or misconduct in office. The motion was filed almost three years after Stokes' indictment in August 1997 and almost two and one-half years after Stokes' January 1998 conviction of crimes he had committed while in office. The District's remarkable delay in ...


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