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Johnson v. Brennan

United States District Court, D. Columbia

November 13, 2015

ROLAND D. JOHNSON, JR., Plaintiff,

          ROLAND D. JOHNSON, JR, Plaintiff, Pro se, Temple Hills, MD.


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         JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

          Pro se Plaintiff Roland Johnson, a U.S. Postal Service employee, filed an employment-discrimination and retaliation claim with his employer in 2006. Now almost a decade later, and after winning his case before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he alleges the Post Office still owes him money for attorney fees and costs he incurred in winning and subsequently enforcing the EEOC's decision. Johnson claims to be trapped in an ever-expanding spiral of attorney-fee expenses, generated in the course of attempting to recover previously incurred attorney fees that the Agency has repeatedly refused to pay. Hoping to get off that treadmill once and for all, he filed suit here. Defendant Megan Brennan, Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service, now moves to dismiss, arguing that the Court is without subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain his suit. Finding Defendant has construed Johnson's Complaint too narrowly, the Court will deny her Motion.

         I. Background

         According to his Amended Complaint, which the Court must credit at this stage, Johnson works in the Post Office's vehicle-maintenance facility. See Am. Compl., ¶ 9. For reasons that are both undisclosed and immaterial here, Johnson filed a discrimination complaint with the Agency in the fall of 2006 and retained counsel sometime thereafter. See id., ¶ ¶ 10, 12. An Administrative Judge for the EEOC found the Postal Service liable for discrimination and retaliation, awarding monetary and prospective relief and assessing attorney fees against the Agency of $105,795.61. See id., ¶ 14; see also Def. Mot., Exh. C (EEOC Sept. 2014 Decision) at 2. The Postal Service appealed the decision to the EEOC's appellate body for federal workers -- the Office of Federal Operations, which the Court will also refer to for the sake of simplicity as the EEOC -- which affirmed the Administrative Judge's decision across the board. See Am. Compl., ¶ 16. In that decision, dated May 15, 2012, the EEOC also ordered the Agency, upon receipt of a verified statement from Johnson, to pay additional fees -- beyond the $105,795.61 -- that were incurred by his attorney in prosecuting the case after the Administrative Judge's original decision. See id., ¶ ¶ 16-17.

         Johnson then undertook to recover those additional fees -- a task that, as described in his Complaint, was nearly Sisyphean, resulting in five distinct requests for fees, at least some portions of which still remain unpaid. Although all of the specifics of these fee requests are not directly relevant to this Opinion, the Court believes that a detailed narrative will prove useful to the parties as the case progresses, both in setting out the areas of disagreement and noting where the Court requires future clarification. To aid in this process, and

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because the requests are numerous and overlapping, the Court includes as an appendix to the Opinion a chart breaking out the payments as described in the Complaint and documents referenced therein. Readers not possessing accounting degrees may find it helpful to have the appendix handy as they proceed through the following facts.

         About two months after the May 2012 EEOC decision, Defendant paid the first set of fees assessed by the Administrative Judge -- $105,795.61 -- and Johnson submitted his first supplemental fee request. That request included fees for work beginning after the date of the Administrative Judge's decision, running through the EEOC appeal, and ending with the hours spent preparing the first fee request itself. See id., ¶ ¶ 17-18. It was submitted on July 6, 2012, and totaled $27,634.50. See id.; EEOC Sept. 2014 Decision at 2. In a letter dated August 4, 2012, the Postal Service agreed to pay that sum and stated rather forthrightly that " [t]he Agency acknowledges that [Plaintiff's] counsel may separately apply for payment of additional attorney's fees and costs incurred after July 6, 2012." EEOC Sept. 2014 Decision at 2. The Postal Service then paid the sum requested, $27,634.50, in either August or September 2012. See id.; Am. Compl., ¶ 18; Def. Mot., Exh. A (Third Fee Request) at 4. (The Court notes that a lack of documents often forces it to cite later-occurring fee requests, which are cumulative of earlier requests, for facts pertaining to those earlier requests.)

         Additional fee requests soon followed, apparently because Defendant dragged its feet in complying with some of the EEOC's remedial commands. Between May and December 2012, Johnson's attorney attempted to " induce the Agency to comply with the [EEOC's] May 15, 2012 order," which was necessary because even as of December 2012, the Agency had yet to furnish certain prospective remedies and had failed to pay interest on Johnson's back pay. See EEOC Sept. 2014 Decision at 2-3. The attorney's efforts resulted in two more fee requests: one related to a Petition for Enforcement that he filed with the EEOC (the second request), and one related to coaxing the Agency into compliance (the third request).

         As to the former, sometime in mid-December 2012 Johnson filed a PFE with the EEOC, which included a specific request for 22.6 hours' worth of fees related to that petition, and nothing else, incurred between December 7 and 12, 2012. See Def. Mot., Exh. B (Fourth Fee Request) at 2-3 (describing fees incurred in preparing the PFE); Am. Compl., ¶ 32. The Court presumes that, although never so designated, this is Johnson's second fee request, since it is the only one described in the Complaint to occur between the first request and the third, which was submitted at the end of December 2012. See id., ¶ 20.[1] Unlike all of his other fee requests, however,

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the second request appears to be the only one submitted directly to the EEOC rather than to the Postal Service.

         Johnson, however, also wanted attorney fees for the time his counsel spent trying to induce compliance directly from the Agency, which is what prompted the third fee request. That request, which totaled $9,122.50, comprised all the time his attorney spent between July 2012 and the end of December 2012 trying to coax remedies out of the Post Office, less the time spent preparing the PFE. See Am. Compl., ¶ 20; Third Fee Request, Exh. 2 (Detailed Worksheet, Third Fee Request) at 1 (" [E]xcludes hours relating to enforcement petition." ). As with the first fee request, it included hours spent preparing the request itself. See Detailed Worksheet, Third Fee Request at 3.

         About a month later and in response to Johnson's PFE (which includes the second request), on January 18, 2013, the Postal Service filed with the EEOC a Compliance Report detailing what it had done to comply with the EEOC's May 2012 order. See Fourth Fee Request at 2. In it, Plaintiff alleges, the Agency claimed that it had fully complied with the decision, at least as of January 2013. See id. (Neither party has supplied the Court with the report itself, nor indicated whether the EEOC took any action after it was filed.) At a minimum, however, it seems undisputed that, notwithstanding its statement of full compliance, the Postal Service did not remit payment for the second fee request contained in the PFE. See Def. Mot. at 4 n.3.

         During the early months of 2013, the Agency apparently took issue with the fees claimed in either or both the second and third fee requests, prompting Johnson's counsel to spend additional hours trying to resolve the disagreement. See Fourth Fee Request at 2-3. Despite those negotiations, the Agency ultimately determined, in a letter dated March 28, 2013, that it would pay only a fraction of the third fee request -- namely, $2,000 of the $9,122.50 sought. See EEOC Sept. 2014 Decision at 2. (The parties have not supplied the Court with the letter decision itself, and thus it is unclear whether the letter also addressed the second fee request.) Treating the letter as a final agency action on his third request, Johnson appealed to the EEOC on April 8, 2013. Id.; see Am. Compl., ¶ 24.

         Before giving the EEOC a chance to rule on that appeal, however, Johnson submitted a fourth fee request to the Postal Service on April 17, 2013. See Am. Compl., ¶ 22. That request included:

(a) a renewed request for the sum sought in the second fee request/December 2012 PFE ($10,057 for 22.6 hours, plus $17.99 in costs);
(b) a renewed request for the sum sought in the third fee request ($9,122.50 for 22.5 hours, plus $57.93 in costs); and
(c) a new request for hours spent from January 19 through April 3, 2013, reviewing the Agency's January 2013 Compliance report and trying to cajole the Agency into paying both the second and third fee requests ($9,969.50 for 22.9 hours, ...

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