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Fisher v. District of Columbia

July 25, 2002

HAROLD FISHER, APPELLANT
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-4825-99) (Hon. Susan R. Winfield, Trial Judge)

Before Terry, Ruiz, and Reid, Associate Judges.

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

Argued December 6, 2000

Harold Fisher, a public school attendance officer, was terminated in a 1998 reduction-in-force (RIF). He appeals a denial of his claim for severance pay. The trial court dismissed Fisher's action for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, and held that Fisher had no alternative private right of action entitling him to file directly in court. Fisher responds that pursuing his administrative remedies would have been futile because the Office of Employee Appeals (OEA), the administrative agency with apparent jurisdiction over this matter, considered his claim to be outside of its jurisdiction.

We concur with the trial court that Fisher did not exhaust his administrative appeals, and find no reason in equity to waive that requirement. We do not decide whether Fisher has an implied cause of action under the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act (CMPA), D.C. Code § 1-601.01 et seq. (2001), because, even if such an action existed, it would have been time-barred.

FACTS

The District of Columbia Public Schools informed Fisher in a letter dated June 19, 1998 that he would be terminated in a RIF effective thirty days later. After his termination, Fisher claimed that the District of Columbia Appropriations Act, 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-100, 111 Stat. 2160 (1998) (codified at D.C. Code § 1-625.7 (1998 Supp.)), amended the CMPA to provide that employees terminated in the 1998 District-wide RIF "shall be entitled to severance pay." D.C. Code § 1-625.7 (g) (1998 Supp.). On April 28, 1999, approximately nine months after the effective date of Fisher's termination, his former employer wrote Fisher that it had the discretion to set severance pay at "an[y] amount or no amount," and exercised that discretion to deny him severance pay.

Three months later, in July of 1999, Fisher's attorney, William Herrington, called the OEA to discuss a possible appeal. Unbeknownst to Herrington at the time, he spoke to Warren M. Cruise, Executive Director of the OEA. Cruise informed the attorney that as of October 22, 1998, the CMPA had been amended such that OEA had lost its authority over "grievances," and would therefore have no jurisdiction "if Mr. Fisher is grieving this matter." *fn1 Taking that comment as a declaration that OEA lacked jurisdiction, Fisher commenced this action in Superior Court on July 12, 1999.

ANALYSIS

1. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

Fisher's principal argument on appeal is that pursuing a claim with the OEA would have been futile because its executive director believed that the agency lacked jurisdiction. *fn2 The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies provides "that no one is entitled to judicial relief for a supposed or threatened injury until the prescribed administrative remedy has been exhausted." Seefeldt v. Board of Trustees of the Univ. of the District of Columbia, 487 F.Supp. 230, 233 (D.D.C. 1979) (quoting Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51 (1938)). That doctrine is not without exceptions. A court of equity may waive that requirement where the claimant makes a "strong showing" of "compelling circumstances" to justify such a waiver. See Barnett v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 491 A.2d 1156, 1161 (D.C. 1985).

Although there is no formula for identifying such "compelling circumstances," see id. at 1161, a lack of fault on the part of the claimant is a necessary prerequisite. In Barnett the exhaustion requirement was waived, in part, because the claimant, despite his best efforts, was unable to obtain evidence crucial to his claim before all administrative deadlines had passed. See id. at 1161. In Bufford v. District of Columbia Public Schools, 611 A.2d 519 (D.C. 1992), on the other hand, we held that a claimant who had taken "numerous informal steps" to resolve his claim, but who had never filed a formal grievance, was at least partly at fault for his failure to pursue administrative remedies and therefore did not merit a waiver. See id. at 523-24.

Here, the reasoning in Bufford controls. Fisher's failure to pursue administrative remedies was almost exclusively his own fault (or that of his attorney). An employee who believes an agency has conducted a RIF in a manner inconsistent with the relevant provisions of the CMPA must appeal to OEA no later than "15 calendar days after the effective date of the action." D.C. Code § 1-625.4 (1999). *fn3 The "action" in this case was the denial of Fisher's request for severance pay on April 28, 1999. *fn4 Fisher did nothing - formally or informally - while the fifteen-day window for appeals was open. It was not until approximately two months after that window closed, in July of 1999, that Fisher's attorney called the OEA to inquire about the appeals procedure. If Fisher had been told in July that OEA had jurisdiction, his claim would have been time-barred. Thus, whether or not the OEA Executive Director was correct concerning the OEA's jurisdiction, it ...


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