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Owens v. District of Columbia Water And Sewer Authority

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

March 30, 2017

SONYA OWENS, Appellant,

          Argued November 1, 2016

         On Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Criminal Division

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-5174-15) (Hon. Thomas J. Motley, Associate Judge)

          Sonya Owens, pro se.

          Tamika L. Taylor for appellee.

          Before Easterly and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.


         This case came to be heard on the transcripts of record, the briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, and for the reasons set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the Superior Court's dismissal of the complaint is affirmed, but direct further proceedings before the DC Water & Sewer Authority consistent with this opinion.

          Easterly, Associate Judge

         Sonya Owens, proceeding pro se, filed suit in Superior Court against the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority ("DC Water") [1] to challenge the termination of her water and sewer service. The Superior Court determined that she had failed to exhaust administrative remedies and dismissed her case. On appeal, Ms. Owens, still pro se, challenges that ruling. DC Water asks us to affirm, both defending the trial court's determination that Ms. Owens was obligated to exhaust administrative remedies and arguing that her path to judicial relief should have been directly to this court pursuant to the District of Columbia Administrative Procedure Act (DCAPA).[2]

         We affirm the Superior Court's dismissal ruling but-to the extent it thought that Ms. Owens's failure to exhaust administrative remedies was itself a jurisdictional impediment to her seeking relief in that forum-not its reasoning. Courts generally require exhaustion of administrative remedies. But this requirement is only prudential in nature and thus can be equitably excused. The jurisdictional impediment to the Superior Court's consideration of Ms. Owens's claim is the fact that the administrative process due to her amounts to a contested case under the DCAPA. Because exclusive authority to review contested cases lies with this court, [3] the Superior Court had no jurisdiction to hear Ms. Owens's suit.

         Our analysis does not end with our affirmance of the Superior Court's dismissal ruling, however, because DC Water, in violation of its own regulations, failed to give Ms. Owens notice of the administrative process available to her. (DC Water's failure to comply with its notice obligations appears to be systemic, as the deficiencies exist in its standard billing statement.) In so doing, DC Water thwarted both Ms. Owens's ability to seek administrative relief and any possibility of this court's review of Ms. Owens's claims. Accordingly, pursuant to the All Writs Act[4] and in aid of our jurisdiction, we direct DC Water to address Ms. Owens's billing challenge on the merits. If Ms. Owens is not satisfied with the result, she may then file a petition for review of the agency's decision with this court.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         In July 2015, Ms. Owens filed suit in Superior Court against DC Water, alleging that DC Water had overcharged her for water and had illegally terminated water and sewer service to her house without following proper procedures. At the same time, Ms. Owens sought emergency relief in the form of a temporary restraining order (which was granted[5]) and a preliminary injunction.

         At the hearing on her request for a preliminary injunction, DC Water argued that Ms. Owens had failed to exhaust the agency's administrative remedies, and that, had she done so and continued to desire judicial review, she should have "appeal[ed] . . . to the D.C. Court of Appeals." "So technically, " DC Water argued, "the Superior Court does not have jurisdiction in this matter pursuant to the [District's] Administrative Procedure[] Act."

         The court's first reaction to this argument was to inquire as to DC Water's status as a government agency. Counsel for DC Water explained that it is "semi-autonomous, . . . not like, let's say, D.C. Department of Health and Human Services, " but a government agency nonetheless. Counsel for DC Water further asserted that it is "ruled by the Administrative Procedure[] Act."

         Ms. Owens did not appear to understand the significance of these assertions and attempted to direct the court to the merits of her claim. The court explained to Ms. Owens that it had to address the exhaustion issue first, and, in so doing, the court seemed initially to accept DC Water's argument that it was presented with a "jurisdictional question."[6] But at a later point in the hearing, the court indicated that it believed it had general jurisdiction to hear Ms. Owens's case and that the only question was whether it would "choose" to require her to exhaust DC Water's administrative review process.[7] Ultimately, the court determined that dismissal of Ms. Owens's suit was appropriate because she did not exhaust administrative remedies, without specifying whether that failure amounted to a jurisdictional defect.

         In the course of this discussion about exhaustion, Ms. Owens asserted that DC Water had not given her notice of the administrative remedies available to her. But the court questioned whether DC Water had any obligation to do so: "Since it's by law it's something that you are deemed to know, but I don't know whether they have to notify you or not." DC Water did not respond directly to this point. Instead, it asserted that it had given Ms. Owens proper notice:

Your honor, for every bill that is sent to a DC Water consumer, on the back of the bill, which you do not have, because you only have [the] front side[8]-and I will show it to the plaintiff in this case-there is a procedure. It says if you have a dispute, you may dispute your bill by submitting a written challenge within ten business days . . . of the receipt of the bill or you may pay the bill and submit a written challenge before the receipt of the following month's bill and that is in accordance with the DCMR regulations.

         Ms. Owens indicated that she had not seen the back side of the paper bill, which was subsequently admitted into evidence as one of DC Water's exhibits, Ex. 4I, and that she was unaware of the information that it contained.[9]

Later, after the court had issued its ruling dismissing the case, Ms. Owens explained that DC Water offered paper or online billing, that she received her bills online, and that her electronic bills did not contain the information on Exhibit 4I. DC Water did not contest these representations; instead, its counsel offered to "give [Ms. Owens] the actual regulation[10] and the backside of a bill. She can even have [Exhibit 4I], if she would like." The court replied "[h]old on" and informed Ms. Owens that "[w]e're making a copy for you." The record does not reflect what, if anything, Ms. Owens was actually given.

         II. Analysis

         The Superior Court's ruling dismissing Ms. Owens's suit against DC Water presents two interrelated questions of law: whether Ms. Owens had an obligation to exhaust administrative remedies before she could challenge her water bill in court, and if so, whether the requisite administrative proceedings before DC Water constitute a contested case under the DCAPA such that only this court can provide Ms. Owens with judicial review of her water bill. We review these questions of law de novo.[11] See Anderson v. Abidoye, 824 A.2d 42, 44 (D.C. 2003); see also, e.g., Davis & Assocs. v. Williams, 892 A.2d 1144, 1148 (D.C. 2006).

         A. The Obligation to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

         It is a common law rule of long-standing that, in litigation involving a government agency, "no one is entitled to judicial relief for a supposed or threatened injury until the prescribed administrative remedy has been exhausted." Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51 (1938); see also, e.g., Davis & Assocs., 892 A.2d at 1148. "The exhaustion requirement is intended to maintain proper relationships between courts and the agencies that have been given regulatory responsibility in certain specialized areas." Davis & Assocs., 892 A.2d at 1148. "Application of the doctrine affords the courts the benefit of the agency's expertise and promotes judicial efficiency by development of the factual record before the agency, thereby at times, eliminating the need for judicial review." Id.; see also Barnett v. DC. Dep't of Emp't Servs., 491 A.2d 1156, 1160 (D.C. 1985) ("[B]y pursuing all administrative avenues for relief the claimant affords the agency an opportunity to correct its own mistakes, mooting judicial controversies and eliminating the need for judicial intervention.").

         However, an "[e]xhaustion requirement[], whether incorporated within an agency statute, or created by judicial rule, " is generally only a prudential "rule of judicial administration."[12]Barnett, 491 A.2d at 1160 (alteration in original). In other words, it is not jurisdictional in the true sense of the word and is subject to equitable exceptions. Id. at 1160-61 ("This court has affirmed the principle that there are circumstances in which a court of equity is justified in considering the merits of an administrative action, notwithstanding the petitioner's failure to exhaust administrative remedies."); see also McKart v. United States,395 U.S. 185, 193 (1969) (acknowledging that the common law exhaustion rule is "subject to numerous exceptions"). For example, an exhaustion requirement might be equitably excused if a litigant was not adequately informed of the administrative process available to her.[13]See infra Section II.C. But the Superior Court had no ...

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