UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
February 22, 2011
ELIZABETH SHEPPARD, PLAINTIFF,
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
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. ¶¶ 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 defendants' motion now ripe for consideration, the court turns to the parties' arguments and the applicable legal standards.
A. Legal Standard for Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The complaint need only set forth a short and plain statement of the claim, giving the defendant fair notice of the claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Kingman Park Civic Ass'n v. Williams, 348 F.3d 1033, 1040(D.C. Cir. 2003) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) and Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). "Such simplified notice pleading is made possible by the liberal opportunity for discovery and the other pretrial procedures established by the Rules to disclose more precisely the basis of both claim and defense to define more narrowly the disputed facts and issues." Conley, 355 U.S. at 47-48 (internal quotation marks omitted). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead all elements of his prima facie case in the complaint, Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-14 (2002), or "plead law or match facts to every element of a legal theory," Krieger v. Fadely, 211 F.3d 134, 136 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
Yet, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 562 (2007) (abrogating the oft-quoted language from Conley, 355 U.S. at 45-46, instructing courts not to dismiss for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that "no set of facts in support of his claim  would entitle him to relief"). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
In resolving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must treat the complaint's factual allegations -- including mixed questions of law and fact -- as true and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the plaintiff's favor. Holy Land Found. for Relief & Dev. v. Ashcroft, 333 F.3d 156, 165 (D.C. Cir. 2003); Browning, 292 F.3d at 242. While many well-pleaded complaints are conclusory, the court need not accept as true inferences unsupported by facts set out in the complaint or legal conclusions cast as factual allegations. Warren v. District of Columbia, 353 F.3d 36, 39 (D.C. Cir. 2004); Browning, 292 F.3d at 242. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
B. Legal Standard for Res Judicata
"The doctrine of res judicata prevents repetitious litigation involving the same causes of action or the same issues." I.A.M. Nat'l Pension Fund v. Indus. Gear Mfg. Co., 723 F.2d 944, 946 (D.C. Cir. 1983). Res judicata has two distinct aspects -- claim preclusion and issue preclusion (commonly known as collateral estoppel) -- that apply in different circumstances and with different consequences to the litigants. NextWave Pers. Commc'ns, Inc. v. Fed. Commc'ns Comm'n, 254 F.3d 130, 142 (D.C. Cir. 2001); Novak v. World Bank, 703 F.2d 1305, 1309 (D.C. Cir. 1983).
Under claim preclusion, "a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action." Drake v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 291 F.3d 59, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980)). "Whether two cases implicate the same cause of action turns on whether they share the same 'nucleus of facts.'" Drake, 291 F.3d at 66(quoting Page v. United States, 729 F.2d 818, 820 (D.C. Cir. 1984)).In making that determination, courts look at "whether the facts are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties' expectations or business understanding or usage." Stanton v. Dist. of Columbia Court of Appeals, 127 F.3d 72, 78 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 24(2) (1982)).
Under issue preclusion or collateral estoppel, "once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case." Yamaha Corp. of Am. v. United States, 961 F.2d 245, 254 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (quoting Allen, 449 U.S. at 94). Issue preclusion applies if three criteria are met: (1) if in the prior litigation, the issue was "actually litigated, that is, contested by the parties and submitted for determination by the court;" (2) if the prior litigation was "actually and necessarily determined by a court of competent jurisdiction;" and (3) if "preclusion in the second trial [does] not work an unfairness." Otherson v. Dep't of Justice, 711 F.2d 267, 273 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (citations omitted).
In short, "claim preclusion forecloses all that which might have been litigated previously," I.A.M. Nat'l Pension Fund, 723 F.2d at 949, while issue preclusion "prevents the relitigation of any issue that was raised and decided in a prior action," Novak, 703 F.2d at 1309. In this way, res judicata helps "conserve judicial resources, avoid inconsistent results, engender respect for judgments of predictable and certain effect, and  prevent serial forum-shopping and piecemeal litigation." Hardison v. Alexander, 655 F.2d 1281, 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1981); see also Allen, 449 U.S. at 94.
C. The Court Grants the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss
In their motion to dismiss, the defendants assert that the plaintiff's claims are nearly identical to the claims she previously asserted in her action before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. See generally Defs.' Mot. The defendants contend that that court's silence regarding the plaintiff's constitutional arguments amounts to an implicit rejection of those arguments. Id. at 4-5. They argue that because the District of Columbia Court of Appeals disposed of that action on the merits, the doctrine of claim preclusion requires dismissal of the plaintiff's claims before this court.*fn3 Id. at 4-5.
The plaintiff does not dispute that now before this court are nearly
identical claims to those she asserted before the District of Columbia
Court of Appeals. Pl.'s Opp'n at 2-3. Rather, the plaintiff argues
that her claims are not precluded because the decision by the District
of Columbia Court of Appeals did not address the plaintiff's
constitutional arguments. Id. at 3. More specifically, the plaintiff
submits that because the District of Columbia Court of Appeals
remained silent on her due process and equal protection arguments, its
opinion does not constitute a judgment on the merits.*fn4
Id. at 2-3.
Courts in the District of Columbia*fn5 use a three-part test in determining the applicability of claim preclusion: "(1) whether the claim was adjudicated finally in the first action; (2) whether the present claim is the same as the claim which was raised or which might have been raised in the prior proceeding; and (3) whether the party against whom the plea is asserted was a party or in privity with a party in the prior case." Youngin's Auto Body v. Dist. of Columbia, 711 F. Supp. 2d 72, 78 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting Patton v. Klein, 746 A.2d 866, 869-70 (D.C. 1999)); Smith v. Dist. of Columbia, 629 F. Supp. 2d 53, 58 (D.D.C. 2009).
As a threshold matter, the parties do not dispute that the parties in this action are identical to the parties in the action before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.*fn6 Similarly, the parties do not contest that the claim here shares the same nucleus of facts as the claim asserted in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals: namely, the District's failure to process the plaintiff's January 2006 claim for permanent partial disability benefits. Drake, 291 F.3d at 66;Compl. ¶¶ 15-16; Pl.'s D.C. Pet. at 1-2. Finally, the plaintiff acknowledges that she raised both the due process and equal protection arguments in the proceeding before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Pl.'s Opp'n at 2-3 (explaining that the "due-process and equal protection arguments suggested by Plaintiff before the [District of Columbia Court of Appeals]" constituted "an invitation for the [D.C. Court of Appeals] to consider the issues"). Accordingly, the court turns its attention to the only element of claim preclusion in dispute -- whether the plaintiff's constitutional claims were adjudicated finally by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
A judgment on the merits is one that "reaches and determines the real or substantial grounds of action or defense as distinguished from matters of practice, procedure, jurisdiction or form." Saylor v. Lindsley, 391 F.2d 965, 968 (2d Cir. 1968) (internal citations omitted); see also Nwachukwu v. Karl, 222 F.R.D. 208, 212 (D.D.C. 2004) (noting the judicial goal of "deciding cases on their merits, as opposed to procedural mishaps dictating the outcome"). The fact that a previous proceeding in the state court does not address a claimant's particular argument does not prevent the application of claim preclusion. See Hornback v. United States, 85 F. App'x 758, 762 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (determining that the plaintiff's claim was barred in a second action despite the fact that the first court's judgment did not address one of the plaintiff's particular arguments, noting that "[e]ven if the [first court] did not expressly address that particular argument in its opinion, it was still a part of the same claim that the court adjudicated and dismissed on the merits"); Pittman v. Mich. Corrs. Org., 123 F. App'x 637, 640 (6th Cir. 2005) (holding that a defendant was precluded from raising constitutional claims in its federal action which were raised but never reached in an earlier state proceeding and observing that "[the defendant] cites no authority, and we have found none, for his assertion that the state court's failure to address individually each of his issues means that they were 'not decided' for purposes of res judicata"); 18A FED. PRAC. & PROC. § 4435 (observing that even a judgment that fails to discuss all aspects of a ruling may have a preclusive effect).
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the CRB's decision that the plaintiff's claim for disability benefits was not eligible for payment because it had not yet been "deemed accepted." Sheppard, 993 A.2d at 528. In so ruling, the court evaluated the relevant provisions of the D.C. Code and the decisions of the ALJ and CRB to determine that the plaintiff's January 2006 claim should not have been deemed accepted under D.C. Code § 1-623.24(a-3)(1). Id. Although the court never reached any discussion of the constitutional arguments, see generally id., the court's decision not to address the plaintiff's constitutional arguments does not indicate that it did not consider these arguments in adjudicating the merits of her case, see Clemons v. Miss., 494 U.S. 738, 747 n.3 (1990) (observing that the court's refusal to address an argument constitutes an implicit rejection of those arguments); see also Savage v. Hadlock, 296 F.2d 417, 419 (D.C. Cir. 1961) (concluding that the district court's ruling in favor of the plaintiff constituted an "implicit rejection" of the defendant's argument where the defendant actually raised the argument before the court and "[t]he issue was clearly presented and all the relevant papers were before that court").
Because the decision of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals addressed the merits of the case, it constitutes a judgment on the merits that bars the instant claim. Accordingly, the plaintiff is barred by the doctrine of claim preclusion from relitigating her claim in this court.*fn7
For the foregoing reasons, the court grants the defendants' motion to dismiss. An Order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion is separately and contemporaneously issued this 22nd day of February, 2011.