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Hall v. Department of Labor

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 30, 2018

STEVEN H. HALL, Plaintiff,
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, et al., Defendants.


          Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge

         Pro se plaintiff, Steven H. Hall, a former employee of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), seeks judicial review of a decision, originally made by the Department of Labor's (“DOL”) Office of Workers' Compensation (“OWCP”), rescinding the plaintiff's benefits under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (“FECA”), 5 U.S.C. § 8101 et seq. Pl.'s First Amended Compl. (“FAC”) at 1-3, ECF No. 14. The plaintiff initially obtained compensatory benefits for a claim that his four weeks of work as an administrative assistant at St. Elizabeth's construction site in Southeast, Washington, D.C., caused him to develop a respiratory illness. Id. ¶¶ 1-2. Having pursued this claim unsuccessfully through no less than six rounds of review by both OWCP and DOL's Employee's Compensation Appeals Board (“ECAB”), see Id. ¶¶ 2-5, the plaintiff now asks this Court to review the administrative decision on the single claim that remains from his First Amended Complaint, Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Not to Dismiss (“Pl.'s Mem.”) at 3, 14-16, ECF No. 18. He contends “OWCP and [ECAB] abused [their] authority and were not in compliance with internal procedures [and] FECA, ” and, as a result, the plaintiff is entitled to damages for “retaliation, obstruction of justice, perjury, and prohibited personnel practices.” Id. at 16. DOL now moves, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), to dismiss the plaintiff's remaining claim, arguing that FECA precludes judicial review, under 5 U.S.C. § 8128(b), and the plaintiff's “attempts to circumvent FECA's judicial preclusion” are unavailing. See Defs.' Mot. Dismiss at 1, ECF No. 15; Defs.' Reply Mot. Dismiss (“Defs.' Reply”) at 1-2, ECF No. 19. For the reasons set forth below, DOL's Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND The plaintiff's claims and underlying allegations have evolved over four iterations of his filings labeled as “complaints, ” see generally Compl., ECF No. 1; Amended Compl., ECF No. 6; Amendment to Compl., ECF No. 12; FAC, and thus present a moving target of factual assertions that are difficult to parse or understand in places, especially in conjunction with the FAC's 224-page attachment with fifty separate exhibits, see generally FAC, Attach. 1 (“FAC Attach.”), Exs. A-AX, ECF No. 14-1. Nonetheless, to the extent intelligible, the plaintiff's allegations are assumed to be true for the purpose of resolving the pending motion. Summarized below are the factual allegations made in the FAC, followed by the relevant procedural history.

         A. Factual Background

         On August 1, 2012, the plaintiff, who has “diagnosed and documented preexisting respiratory issues, anxiety and depression, and sleep apnea, ” was assigned to work as an administrative assistant at the St. Elizabeth's Construction site. FAC at 2-3. According to the plaintiff, his employment at St. Elizabeth's required him “to rinse and wipe down golf carts and perform escorts throughout the [St. Elizabeth's] campus, ” which was “hot and dusty.” Id. ¶¶ 1- 2. In early August 2012, he “became ill on DHS premises, ” and his existing “respiratory issues” were “exacerbated.” Id. ¶ 1. Over the next almost six months, “[f]rom August 29, 2012 to February 18, 2013, [he] recuperated from his respiratory issues at home, ” only returning to St. Elizabeth's for a brief one week period, from February 19 to 26, 2013, before he “became ill” again. Id. ¶ 1-2. The plaintiff did not return to work and was removed from the position in November 2013. Id. ¶ 2.

         The plaintiff first filed a claim under FECA to obtain compensation benefits for his respiratory issues on November 20, 2012. Pl.'s Mem. at 4; FAC 1. The plaintiffs supervisor controverted the claim, “indicating that there was no difference in the outside and inside air quality” at St. Elizabeth's such that the conditions on the premises would have aggravated the plaintiffs preexisting respiratory issues. FAC 1. The supervisor's comments appear to be based on an Air Quality Test (“AQT”) performed on the premises, beginning in September 2012. Id. In September 2012, the plaintiff began providing OWCP with “medical documentation and recommendations from attending physicians to remove Plaintiff from a dusty working environment.” Id. DHS offered the plaintiff accommodations, including a dust mask and air purifier, which the plaintiff initially rejected and then said did not work upon trying them in February 2013. Id. ¶ 2.

         On January 9, 2013, OWCP accepted the plaintiffs claim for compensation benefits based on his respiratory issues, authorizing the plaintiff to receive almost $30, 000 in workers' compensation for the period of September 23, 2012, through March 29, 2013. Id. ¶ 2. The plaintiff was assigned to a Field Nurse who provided reports to OWCP Claims Examiners and Consultant Nurses about the plaintiffs condition from February 2013 through June 2013. Id. On May 8, 2013, OWCP informed the plaintiff that an Air Quality Sample Report (“AQSR”) indicated “no difference in the air quality inside or outside Plaintiff['s] workplace” and that the plaintiff had “30 days to submit documentation in support of his respiratory claim.” Id. After the plaintiff “provided OWCP medical documentation and a recommendation to remove Plaintiff from [St. Elizabeth's], ” OWCP rescinded the plaintiff's benefits on June 10, 2013. Id.

         The plaintiff unsuccessfully attempted to reverse the June 10, 2013, decision at least six times through the administrative review process afforded under FECA. Specifically, the plaintiff asked OWCP to reconsider the June 10, 2013 decision on June 24, 2013, and October 8, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 2, 4; see also S.H. and Dep't Homeland Sec., No. 15-0539, 2015 WL 6074170, at *4 (E.C.A.B. Sept. 21, 2015) (providing dates for claims). Both times OWCP denied the requests as “not sufficient to warrant” reopening the case because the evidence submitted was “cumulative.” See FAC ¶¶ 2, 4; Pl.'s Mem. at 9; see also Defs.' Mot. Dismiss, Ex. 1, Decl. Julia Tritz, Deputy Director for Federal Employees' Compensation, OWCP (“Tritz Decl.”) ¶¶ 8, 11, ECF No. 15-3.

         The plaintiff appealed both of the reconsideration denial decisions to ECAB, on January 13, 2014, and January 20, 2015, respectively, and, in both cases, ECAB found that OWCP properly declined to re-open the case. See S.H., 2015 WL 6074170, at *1, 4; FAC ¶¶ 3, 5; Pl.'s Mem at 8-9. ECAB made non-merits decisions in both cases because “the 180 days allotted by 20 C.F.R. [§] 501.3 to appeal OWCP's June 10, 2013 decision had elapsed.” FAC ¶¶ 3, 5; Pl.'s Mem. at 8; see also S.H., 2015 WL 6074170, at *1. With respect to both decisions, the plaintiff sought at least one additional and unsuccessful review, through reconsideration in one case and an appeal, for which ECAB concluded it had no jurisdiction, in the other. See FAC ¶¶ 3, 5; see also Defs.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss (“Defs.' Mem.”) at 4, ECF No. 15-1 (summarizing claim history).

         B. Procedural History

         The plaintiff brought the instant lawsuit against DOL in May 2016, initially by “mistakably invok[ing] a variety of statu[t]es in five separate claims.” FAC at 1.[2] The plaintiff sought a total of $295, 542.00 in damages for loss of salary, emotional abuse and mental stress, and workers' compensation benefits. Compl. ¶¶ 6-14. As noted, the plaintiff confusingly filed a total of four documents captioned as “complaints, ” which prompted DOL to file three motions to dismiss in this litigation. After the third “complaint, ” the Court ordered the plaintiff to clarify his claims and provide notice of whether he was “seek[ing] to amend his complaint or . . . instead [file] his opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss.” Min. Order (dated Nov. 23, 2016).[3] In response to the Court's order, the plaintiff filed the FAC, which essentially sets out the same scattered claims against DOL as in the original complaint. At the same time, the plaintiff clarifies in his memorandum that he is asserting a single FECA claim against DOL for his denial of benefits for his respiratory illness. Pl.'s Mem. at 14-16 (asserting a “FECA claim” and clarifying plaintiff does “not seek damages under 5 U.S.C. [§] 8151 . . . [or] under the FTCA, ” and he “is not stating a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act [or] . . . the Rehabilitation Act”).


         DOL seeks to dismiss the plaintiff's remaining claim, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1).[4] To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating the court's subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims asserted. Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015). “‘Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, ' possessing ‘only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.'” Gunn v. Minton, 133 S.Ct. 1059, 1064 (2013) (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). Indeed, federal courts are “forbidden . . . from acting beyond our authority, ” NetworkIP, LLC v. FCC, 548 F.3d 116, 120 (D.C. Cir. 2008), and, therefore, have “an affirmative obligation ‘to consider whether the constitutional and statutory authority exist for us to hear each dispute, '” James Madison Ltd. ex rel. Hecht v. Ludwig, 82 F.3d 1085, 1092 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis., 974 F.2d 192, 196 (D.C. Cir. 1992)). Absent subject matter jurisdiction over a case, the court must dismiss it. Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 506-07 (2006); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3) (requiring dismissal of action “at any time” the court determines it lacks subject matter jurisdiction).

         When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), the court must accept as true all uncontroverted material factual allegations contained in the complaint and “‘construe the complaint liberally, granting plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged' and upon such facts determine jurisdictional questions.” Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Thomas v. Principi, 394 F.3d 970, 972 (D.C. Cir. 2005)). The court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff, however, if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint or amount merely to legal conclusions. See Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In resolving the motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court may consider materials outside the pleadings. Am. Freedom Law Ctr. v. Obama, 821 F.3d 44, 49 (D.C. Cir. 2016); Settles v. U.S. Parole Comm'n, 429 F.3d 1098, 1107 (D.C. Cir. ...

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