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Burton v. District of Columbia

November 20, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-6936-98) (Hon. Susan R. Winfield, Trial Judge)

Before Terry, Ruiz, and Washington, Associate Judges.

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

Submitted January 28, 2003

Appellant, a former police officer, filed suit against the District of Columbia and three of his former supervisors, Lieutenant Joseph Fairley, Inspector Christopher Cooch, and Commander Lloyd Coward of the Metropolitan Police (collectively "the District"). The complaint alleged four theories of liability, *fn1 based on what appellant believed to have been retaliatory conduct by the District in response to his reporting of misconduct by Lieutenant Fairley. The gist of appellant's claim was that these retaliatory acts made the workplace so unbearable for him that he was constructively forced into retirement. The case went to trial before a jury, but before appellant completed his case in chief, the District moved for judgment as a matter of law under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 on the ground that appellant had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the District of Columbia Government Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act ("CMPA"). *fn2 The trial court granted the motion and entered judgment for the District. We affirm.


Appellant joined the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") in 1972. At the time of the alleged retaliatory conduct, appellant was assigned to the Office of Internal Affairs, where he was investigating allegations that employees of the Water and Sewer Authority ("WASA") were engaging in private plumbing jobs while on duty and were using city resources to do the work.

Appellant alleged that on May 19, 1997, at approximately 7:00 p.m., he witnessed Lieutenant Fairley making photocopies of examination questions, while receiving overtime pay, for a course that he w as teaching at the University of the District of Columbia. On May 30 appellant wrote a memorandum to Commander Coward and Inspector Cooch informing them of the photocopying incident. At trial appellant testified to what he believed to be a series of retaliatory actions taken as a result of his reporting Lieutenant Fairley's supposed misconduct. We need not recite the specifics of the alleged retaliatory conduct. For purposes of this appeal, all that bears mentioning is that on July 23, 1997, appellant filed an informal grievance with Assistant Chief Michael Fitzgerald contesting a recent reprimand and explaining that he believed he was the target of retaliation. *fn3 According to appellant's testimony, Assistant Chief Fitzgerald agreed that the reprimand had been excessive and that he would "take care of this." Because no action w as taken within twenty days as required by the grievance procedures set forth in MPD General Order 201.3, appellant had the right to file a formal grievance. On cross-examination, however, appellant admitted that he was unaware of the grievance procedure since he did not read General Order 201.3 beyond that portion which pertained to informal hearings. *fn4 Instead of seeking an administrative remedy for the wrongs allegedly done to him, appellant retired on October 25, 1997, and filed this suit in September 1998.

Before trial, the parties submitted a Joint Pretrial Statement ("JPS") pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 16 (e) which set forth the claims and defenses they intended to raise at trial. Although the District asserted appellant's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies as a defense in its answer to the complaint, it failed to mention it in the JPS. The trial court then issued its Final Pretrial Order, which stated: "The claims and defenses of the parties are set forth in the Joint Pretrial Statement. . . . No other claims or defenses will be entertained at trial absent good

cause." Appellant argues that the District waived its right to raise the exhaustion defense by failing to include it in the JPS, and that the trial court was prohibited by the pretrial order from considering defenses not mentioned in the JPS. *fn5 For the reasons that follow, we reject appellant's argument.


Before addressing appellant's argument about the pretrial order, we turn preliminarily to the District's assertion that it had the right to raise the exhaustion issue at any tim e, despite its failure to m ention it in the JPS, because the failure to exhaust administrative remedies strips the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction.

The District is of course correct that a party may challenge the court's jurisdiction at any time. See King v. Kidd, supra note 5, 640 A.2d at 662. *fn6 The District is mistaken, however, in asserting that appellant's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies deprives the court of jurisdiction. While the exhaustion doctrine is well established and of long standing, both in CMPA cases *fn7 and generally, that doctrine is simply a "rule of judicial administration" rather than a jurisdictional requirement. See Barnett v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Services, 491 A.2d 1156, 1160 (D.C. 1985) (citation omitted). Although there were "scattered references" in some of the earlier cases to exhaustion as a jurisdictio nal rule, see Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 395 (1982), the Supreme Court has made clear that exhaustion is not a "jurisdictional prerequisite" to a c court proceeding, id. at 393, but merely a requirement "analogous to a statute of limitations" which is subject to waiver, estoppel, or other mitigating factors. See Barnett, 491 A.2d at 1160.

We also recognized in Barnett that "there are circumstances in which a court of equity is justified in considering the merits of an administrative action, notwithstanding the petitioner's failure to exhaust administrative remedies." Id. at 1161 (citation omitted). To bring his case within this exception, however, appellant "must make a 'strong showing' of compelling circumstances justifying equity's intervention in order to persuade us to excuse a failure to exhaust and examine the claim's merits." Id. (citations omitted). Appellant has made no such showing, nor is there anything in the record which might suggest that exhaustion would be futile. See, e.g., Law v. Howard University, 558 A.2d 355, 357 (D.C. 1989). Instead, by his own admission, *fn8 appellant's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies was attributable to his lack of knowledge of the process rather than any compelling circumstances. That is not sufficient to permit us to ignore or overlook the exhaustion ...

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