June 18, 2018
from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia
(CAP-1551-16) Hon. Jennifer A. Di Toro, Trial Judge
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.
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.
Easterly and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior
MCLEESE, ASSOCIATE JUDGE.
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
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
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").
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.
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."