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Thomas v. Dist. of Columbia

February 28, 2008

WALTER J. THOMAS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (C-3203-04) (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Motions Judge). (Hon. Judith E. Retchin, Trial Judge).

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

Argued September 19, 2007

Before RUIZ, BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.

Appellant Walter Thomas seeks reversal of a trial court order granting summary judgment to appellee District of Columbia on several counts of a lawsuit in which Thomas sought to recover damages for injuries allegedly caused by the District's delay in disbursing Thomas's retirement funds. Thomas also appeals the trial court's entry of a directed verdict on the one count of his lawsuit that the court allowed to proceed to trial, in which Thomas asserted that the lump-sum retirement payments that he received were less than the total amount to which he was entitled (Thomas's "underpayment claim"). We affirm.

I.

Thomas, who had previously worked for District of Columbia agencies during the period from 1989 to 1995, was hired again by the District in 1998. Erroneously, he was coded as an employee eligible for benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS)*fn1 rather than under the District's Defined Contribution Plan -- a coding error similar to one that had occurred during Thomas' earlier periods of employment with the District. Thomas was terminated from his most recent employment with the District on March 28, 2003, after his position was abolished. Thereafter, on July 19, 2003, he was injured in a car accident in which he sustained an injury to his lumbar spine.

On February 10, 2004, Thomas requested a lump-sum payout of his retirement benefits. Only then was the error in coding discovered and corrected, causing a delay in the District's processing of Thomas' request and a concomitant delay in disbursement of the requested funds. On April 17, 2004, Thomas filed suit against the District and two employees of the Office of Pay and Retirement*fn2 (together, the "District defendants"), claiming, inter alia, negligence, breach of implied contract, and violations of District of Columbia statutory provisions governing the District's Defined Contribution Plan,*fn3 and alleging a failure by the District defendants to competently and timely process his retirement benefits. The same day, Thomas moved for temporary injunctive relief directing the District to make the delayed payment. He asserted that the payment delay left him without funds to purchase the expensive medications that he needs because of his serious spinal cord injury. He alleges that his financial inability to purchase his prescribed medications resulted in an aggravation of his injury.*fn4 The District paid Thomas $11,286.06 on May 13, 2004, and the trial court denied the temporary injunction motion as moot.

Thomas acknowledges that the District paid him an additional $5,338.89 on June 4, 2004. But he claims that he is owed additional amounts, both with respect to a draw-down of retirement funds that he requested in 1995 (based on his service from 1989 to 1995) and with respect to the 2004 draw-down (attributable to his service from 1998 to 2003). More particularly, he asserts that the total amount of retirement funds that the District has paid to him falls short of (i) the total amount that the District should have contributed to the Defined Contribution Plan on his behalf for his service over the period from 1989 to 2003, plus (ii) the interest that would have been earned on those contributions. He asserts in his brief to this court that the total due him "would have been approximately $44,000.00 had the issue been submitted to the Jury for computation."*fn5

Following a pre-trial conference held on June 7, 2005, the trial court issued a pre-trial order directing the District defendants to file an omnibus pre-trial brief on all issues by August 1, 2005, and requiring Thomas to file his opposition brief by September 15, 2005. In his opposition brief, filed on September 14, 2005, Thomas explained that although the District defendants had "ignored" the issue of the "clear statutory law empowering the Plaintiff to bring tort-style claims against the Defendants for Violation of the Retirement and benefits rights owed to District of Columbia employees by said employees," his brief would "address[] same to assist the Trial Court's decision-making on this point." Thomas then argued that his suit was specifically authorized by D.C. § Code 1-626.14, which states, in relevant part, that:

A civil action may be brought by a participant or a beneficiary of the Trust, or by the District, to enjoin any act or practice that violates any provision of this chapter or the terms of the retirement program, and for other appropriate legal and equitable relief.

D.C. Code § 1-626.14 (2001).

On November 17, 2005, the court issued an order granting summary judgment to defendants/appellees on Thomas's claims for damages for aggravation of his back injury and for other consequential damages. The court cited its "right and duty to grant summary judgment sua sponte when it appears that a party cannot prevail on a claim or defense as a matter of law so long as the losing party was on notice that it had to come forward with all of its evidence." The court noted the absence of any case law "allow[ing] these types of damages on a claim of this kind," id. at 4, and reasoned that regardless of whether Thomas sought recovery on a tort or contract theory, the damages he alleged were not reasonably foreseeable. The court also found that the evidence would "not support a reasonable finding" that defendants' conduct was the proximate cause of Thomas's back injury.

The court permitted trial to go forward on Thomas's underpayment claim, reserving until trial the issue of whether Thomas needed an expert to prove his claim.*fn6 Trial commenced on February 27, 2006. On February 28, 2006, at the close of Thomas's case, the court granted the District's oral motion for judgment as a matter of law. The trial judge explained (in her order declining to "order that a [trial] transcript be prepared at government expense"*fn7 ) that she "directed a verdict against plaintiff ...


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