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Johnson v. District of Columbia Public Schools

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

August 9, 2018

Andrew Johnson, Appellant,
v.
District of Columbia Public Schools, Appellee.

          Argued June 18, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAP-1551-16) Hon. Jennifer A. Di Toro, Trial Judge

          Andrew Johnson, pro se.

          Richard S. Love, Senior Assistant Attorney General, with whom Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Loren L. AliKhan, Solicitor General, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General at the time the initial brief was filed, and Stacy L. Anderson, Acting Deputy Solicitor General, were on the briefs, for appellee.

          David Carpman, with whom Jonathan H. Levy was on the brief, for The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, amicus curiae in support of appellant.

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

          MCLEESE, ASSOCIATE JUDGE.

         Appellant Andrew Johnson challenges the Superior Court's decision that the District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals (OEA) lacks jurisdiction to hear Mr. Johnson's wrongful-termination claim. We conclude that OEA has jurisdiction to hear Mr. Johnson's wrongful-termination claim.

         I.

         The following evidence was presented to OEA. Mr. Johnson was a school psychologist for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). He received a notice of termination, effective August 12, 2011, because he received a low performance rating for two consecutive years. In September 2011, Mr. Johnson appealed his termination to OEA. Mr. Johnson's financial situation worsened while his OEA appeal was pending. Mr. Johnson therefore met with employees of the DCPS Office of Human Resources (OHR) to discuss obtaining retirement benefits. He told the employees that he still wished to pursue his appeal before OEA and ultimately to return to work at DCPS, but sought access to his retirement funds because of his financial situation. When Mr. Johnson was provided a retirement application, he asked how he should fill out the application. In response, an OHR employee wrote "involuntary" on the application. The application listed an effective retirement date of August 12, 2011. Mr. Johnson was not told that he could lose his ability to appeal his termination if he filed for retirement benefits.

         Mr. Johnson began to receive annuity payments labeled "involuntary retirement benefits" pursuant to the District of Columbia Teachers' Retirement Plan (Plan), retroactive to his separation date. Under the Plan, former DCPS teachers can qualify for two separate categories of "retirement benefit[s]": "voluntary retirement benefit[s]" and "involuntary retirement benefit[s]." The Plan states that involuntary-retirement benefits "may be payable if [an otherwise eligible employee] is involuntarily separated from service (unless the reason is for cause on charges of misconduct or delinquency)." See generally D.C. Code § 38-2021.03 (b)(1) (2018 Cum. Supp.) (providing for benefits to employees who have been "involuntarily separated from the service," meet certain age and length-of-service requirements, and were not "remov[ed] for cause on charges of misconduct or delinquency").

         An OEA ALJ concluded that OEA lacked jurisdiction to reach the merits of Mr. Johnson's wrongful-termination claim, because Mr. Johnson had voluntarily retired. In rejecting the contention that Mr. Johnson's retirement was involuntary, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Johnson had not proven that DCPS coerced or misled him. The ALJ also concluded that Mr. Johnson's retirement was not rendered involuntary by the facts that (1) an OHR employee wrote "involuntary" on Mr. Johnson's retirement application; (2) Mr. Johnson applied for retirement benefits because he was facing financial difficulties; and (3) DCPS failed to tell Mr. Johnson that acceptance of retirement benefits would foreclose a challenge to his termination. The OEA Board and the Superior Court both affirmed, essentially for the reasons stated by the ALJ.

         II.

         This court "reviews agency decisions on appeal from the Superior Court the same way we review administrative appeals that come to us directly." Stevens v. District of Columbia Dep't of Health, 150 A.3d 307, 311-12 (D.C. 2016) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). "Although this court generally resolves legal questions de novo, the court ordinarily accords deference to an agency's interpretation of a statute that the agency administers, unless the interpretation is unreasonable or is inconsistent with the statutory language or purpose." ...


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