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Matthews v. District of Columbia

June 2, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-3036-01). (Hon. John H. Bayly, Jr., Trial Judge).

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

Argued April 9, 2003

Before SCHWELB, FARRELL and RUIZ, Associate Judges.

This is an appeal from the trial court's dismissal of the appellant's complaint, filed at the request of the Police and Firefighters' Retirement and Relief Board ("Board"), for a declaration of her child's paternity that would enable the Board to determine the child's entitlement to survivor benefits resulting from the death of her putative father, a firefighter. We disagree with the trial court's determination that it lacked jurisdiction on the ground that the issue was properly for the Board's determination. We therefore reverse and remand so the trial court can decide the question of paternity.


The appellant, Katie G. Matthews, and Louis J. Matthews, a D.C. firefighter since May of 1992, were married on January 24, 1992.*fn2 While they were married, Mr. Matthews and appellant filed an Acknowledgment of Parentage form, in which Mr. Matthews acknowledged that he was the father of LaChrisia Lorraine Matthews, the minor child born to the appellant prior to the marriage. According to the appellant, after their divorce in 1997, Mr. Matthews continued to acknowledge LaChrisia as his child, even after the birth of Nicholas Matthews, the son of Mr. Matthews and the appellee, Angela Barrett.

On May 31, 1999, Mr. Matthews died in the line of duty. The appellant filed an application for survivor benefits on behalf of LaChrisia with the Board.*fn3 She also filed applications for Social Security Survivor Benefits, the Government of the District of Columbia Office of Pay and Retirement Services Employee Life Insurance Survivor Benefits, and the Department of Justice Police and Safety Officers' Benefits Program.*fn4

After an evidentiary hearing, the Board denied LaChrisia's application for survivor benefits because it was unable to determine that LaChrisia was the child of the deceased firefighter, within the meaning of D.C. Code § 5-701 (5)(A) (2001) (formerly D.C. Code § 4-607 (5)(A) (1981)).*fn5 The Board directed LaChrisia to "obtain a declaratory judgment from the Courts of the District of Columbia," to determine whether Mr. Matthews was her father. The Board further indicated that its order was without prejudice and, once a declaratory judgment establishing paternity was issued, the appellant could "seek further relief in this cause based on the declaratory judgment." Following the Board's recommendation, the appellant, as Guardian and Next Friend of LaChrisia Lorraine Matthews, filed a complaint for a judgment declaring that LaChrisia is the minor child of deceased firefighter Louis J. Matthews. Arguing that under D.C. Code § 16-909, the Acknowledgment of Parentage form that was signed, under oath, by her and Mr. Matthews, "is conclusive evidence that [Mr. Matthews] is the father of LaChrisia Matthews for all rights, privileges, duties, and obligations under the laws of the District of Columbia," appellant subsequently filed a motion for summary declaratory judgment on the issue of paternity. The motion was opposed by both the District of Columbia and Angela Barrett, as Guardian and Next Friend of Nicholas Matthews, the child of Ms. Barrett and the deceased Mr. Matthews.*fn6

After hearing oral argument, the trial court denied the appellant's motion for summary declaratory judgment and dismissed the complaint. The trial court agreed with the District of Columbia that the court plays a limited role in respect of proceedings before the Board, which is the entity entrusted by the Mayor with the statutory responsibility to consider the allocation of survivor benefits. The trial court further determined that it may only "overturn the Board's decision if its findings are unsupported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, or if it is grounded on faulty legal premises." The court thus considered that it was constrained to dismiss appellant's complaint -- even if filed at the Board's instance -- because the factual dispute at issue is by statute for resolution by the Board. Appellant filed this timely appeal.*fn7


This court reviews the trial court's legal conclusions de novo, but factual findings are treated as "presumptively correct unless they are clearly erroneous or unsupported by the record." Lawlor v. District of Columbia, 758 A.2d 964, 974 (D.C. 2000) (quoting Auxier v. Kraisel, 466 A.2d 416, 418 (D.C. 1983)). The trial court based its dismissal of the appellant's claim on the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, noting that the "determination of parentage, an issue of fact or, at most, a mixed issue of fact and law, has by statute been conferred upon the Police and Firefighters' Retirement and Relief Board," and further noting that "the legal standard for the Board's evaluating a challenge to filiation assertedly established by statutorily prescribed means has also been set forth by statute." As this is an issue of law, we review the matter de novo.

The appellant argues that the trial court is the appropriate forum to resolve the question of paternity, pursuant to its authority under In re D.M., 562 A.2d 618, 620-21 (D.C. 1989), an issue that is relevant not only to the Board's determination but also to benefits from other sources. See supra, note 3. She contends that the court's determination of paternity would not supplant the Board's ultimate authority to decide whether to award survivor benefits under D.C. Code § 5-716, noting that the Board itself directed the appellant to seek a threshold determination regarding paternity from the court so that the Board may then finally resolve the question of survivor benefits.

Appellee Barrett does not contest the Superior Court's authority to render declaratory judgments to establish paternity. Rather, she argues that the Board, and not the courts, must make a determination of parentage in connection with a benefits determination entrusted to the Board. In support of the trial court's determination that the Board has primary jurisdiction to determine paternity in this case, appellee Barrett notes that the Board held an evidentiary hearing to that end and is competent to make such a determination. On the merits of the paternity question, appellee Barrett asserts that LaChrisia is not the child of Louis Matthews, leaving only her child, Nicholas, entitled to survivor benefits.

The District of Columbia has taken the position, both in the trial court and in this court, that it has no interest in who receives the survivor benefits, so long as they are paid in accordance to the law. From that posture, it contends that, because in this instance the court's jurisdiction was invoked only for purposes of determining eligibility for survivor benefits resulting from Mr. Matthews's death in the line of duty as a firefighter, it is the Board alone which must make a determination as to whether benefits should be awarded. The District distinguishes this court's ruling in In re D.M., cited by appellant, as standing for the proposition that the Superior Court may issue declaratory judgments regarding paternity so long as there is a justiciable claim, but without addressing the question of primary jurisdiction presented in this case. On this point, we agree with the District of Columbia. In determining whether an action seeking a declaratory judgment regarding paternity is justiciable or whether it would be an "abstract, hypothetical or contingent question" over which the trial court would lack jurisdiction, In re D.M., 562 A.2d at 620 (quoting Pauling v. Eastland, 109 U.S.App. D.C. 342, 344, 288 F.2d 126, 128 (1960)), some reason must be stated to render the judicial determination more than a mere advisory opinion. See id. (quoting Smith v. Smith, 310 A.2d 229, 231 (D.C. 1973) (holding that appellant did not have a justiciable claim since she had alleged no reason for seeking the determination that appellee was her natural father). Alleging entitlement to tangible benefits flowing from parentage would be a justiciable claim. See id. In this ...

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