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Elizabeth Sheppard v. District of Columbia et al

February 22, 2011

ELIZABETH SHEPPARD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Re Document No.: 4

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING THE DEFENDANTS'MOTION TO DISMISS

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants violated her due process and equal protection rights as guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, respectively, when they failed to process her disability benefits claim brought under the provisions of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act ("the Act"), D.C. CODE § 1-623.24. The defendants now move to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), contending that the plaintiff's claim has already been adjudicated by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Because res judicata bars the plaintiff's claims, the court grants the defendants' motion.

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 1983, the plaintiff suffered a work-related injury while working for the government of the District of Columbia ("the District"). Compl. ¶ 12. The plaintiff continued to work for the District until July 1998, when her injury worsened. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 2 (Pl.'s Petition before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ("Pl.'s D.C. Pet.")) at 1.*fn1 Soon thereafter, the plaintiff filed a claim for temporary total disability benefits with the District's Disability Compensation Program ("DCP"), which accepted the claim and began to pay benefits. Id.

In January 2006, the plaintiff's physician determined that her injury had reached the point of "maximum medical improvement" and that she had sustained a permanent impairment as a result of the injury. Id. The plaintiff immediately filed a claim for permanent partial disability benefits with the DCP ("the January 2006 claim"). Compl. ¶ 15.

At the time, the Act provided that within thirty days of the filing of a disability claim, the DCP must make findings of facts and decide whether to award payment of compensation to an applicant for disability benefits. D.C. CODE § 1-623.24(a) (2006). The DCP's failure to do so meant that the claim would automatically "be deemed accepted," with "payment of compensation [commencing] on the 31st day following the date the claim was filed." Id. § 1-623.24(a-3)(1) (2006). Thus, after thirty days passed without any decision by the DCP, the plaintiff sought an order from an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") declaring that her claim for permanent partial disability benefits was deemed accepted and automatically payable pursuant to § 1-623.24(a-3)(1). Pl.'s D.C. Pet. at 2.

The ALJ, however, denied the plaintiff's request for an order after concluding that § 1-623.24(a-3)(1) applied strictly to an initial claim for benefits and that given the plaintiff'spreviously submitted claim for temporary total disability benefits submitted by the plaintiff, the plaintiff's January 2006 claim was not an initial claim and the statutory provisions did not apply. See Notice (Jan. 14, 2011), ALJ's Order at 3-5. The plaintiff then filed an application for review with the Compensation Review Board ("CRB"), which affirmed the ALJ's decision. See generally id., CRB Decision.

On May 5, 2009, the plaintiff petitioned the District of Columbia Court of Appeals for review of the CRB's decision,arguing, inter alia, that the CRB's application of § 1-623.24(a-3)(1) violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn2

Pl.'s D.C. Pet. at 17-22. More specifically, the plaintiff argued that the CRB's interpretation of § 1-623.24(a-3)(1) deprived her of due process because it allowed the DCP to avoid rendering a final decision on her permanent partial disability benefits claim. Id. at 19-20. The plaintiff averred that without an administrative decision by the CRB either accepting or denying her claim for benefits, she would never be able to seek judicial review of the merits of her disability benefits claim. Id. at 17; see also D.C. CODE § 1-623.24(a-4)(1) ("A claimant who disagrees with a decision of [the DCP] . . . shall have the right to request reconsideration of that decision") (emphasis added). The plaintiff also argued before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that the CRB's interpretation of § 1-623.24(a-4)(1) violated the Equal Protection Clause by creating two categories of disability claims -- those that the DCP decided on the merits and which therefore entitled a claimant to seek adjudicatory review, and those claims that the DCP did not decide, foreclosing any judicial review of the merits of the disability benefits claim. Pl.'s D.C. Pet. at 20.

Ultimately, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the CRB, concluding that under § 1-623.24(a-3)(1) the DCP was not obligated to pay partial disability benefits to the plaintiff for her January 2006 claim solely because a decision had not been issued within the thirty-day time frame. Sheppard v. D.C. Dep't of Emp't Servs., 993 A.2d 525, 528 (D.C. 2010) (per curiam). The court did not, however, address the plaintiff's constitutional claims.

In May 2010, the plaintiff commenced this action, arguing that the DCP's failure to process her January 2006 claim deprives her of access to judicial review and thus violates her due process and equal protection rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. See Compl. ΒΆΒΆ 6, 7. The defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the doctrine of res judicata bars the plaintiff's claim. See generally Defs.' Mot. With the ...


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