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Peterson v. Washington Teachers Union

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

September 6, 2018

Candi Peterson, Appellant,
Washington Teachers Union, Appellee.

          Argued December 5, 2017

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-9629-15) Hon. Jeanette J. Clark, Motions Judge

          Charles E. Wagner for appellant.

          Daniel M. Rosenthal, with whom Lee W. Jackson was on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, and Fisher and Thompson, Associate Judges.



         Appellant Candi Peterson appeals the trial court's dismissal of her breach of contract claim against her former employer, appellee the Washington Teachers Union ("WTU") pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6). Because we find that res judicata[1] bars appellant's claim, we affirm the trial court's dismissal.


         The Washington Teachers Union ("WTU") is a labor organization that acts as the exclusive bargaining agent for all personnel, except supervisors, of the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). In December 2010, appellant was elected General Vice President of the WTU; she took a paid leave of absence from her DCPS position as a social worker/classroom teacher to assume this position.

         In December 2010, WTU's newly-elected President, Nathan Saunders, drafted a compensation agreement for appellant, and an identical contract for himself. Appellant's contract provided for a salary of $151, 000[2] and included several important provisions, most notably:

8. Any disputes concerning compensation shall be arbitrable using the American Arbitration Association.
9. WTU will promptly pay all expenses associated with the arbitration including legal representation by both parties.
10. Any provision included herein deemed illegal shall be unenforceable. All other provisions shall remain in full affect.
11. Any dispute shall be considered resolved in its entirety by payment of the disputed amount.
12. Non-payment of compensation will accrue as a WTU liability and is not waived. Non-payment of compensation shall create a priority wage lien due in full at the end of [appellant's] term.

         On July 26, 2011, Saunders suspended the WTU's portion of appellant's compensation agreement ($51, 000) after both parties engaged in a heated argument in front of field representatives over who was in charge of a matter involving teachers who had been discharged.[3] After this disagreement, Saunders issued a letter informing appellant that she had been removed from office and her pay terminated until she met with him to rectify the situation. In response, appellant contacted The Examiner, which published a story alleging that Saunders was pushing appellant out and had verbally abused her. Saunders, believing these comments to be derogatory, sent appellant a letter demanding that she meet with him. At the subsequent meeting, Saunders gave appellant a non-negotiable settlement agreement which demanded that appellant admit inappropriate conduct; that she submit a written letter of apology; that she agree to a financial penalty; and that she refrain from contacting the press about the matter. The letter also stated that appellant's pay, which had been withheld, would not be returned unless appellant agreed to these demands. Appellant refused to sign the agreement, and in response, Saunders drafted a disciplinary resolution.

         On August 4, 2011, Saunders scheduled a meeting to be held that evening to address the disciplinary resolution; appellant was not provided any notice of this meeting or its resolution, but learned about it indirectly. At the August 4th meeting, the Executive Board adopted Saunders's resolution, suspending appellant's supervisory authority over field representatives for a period of six months and terminating the additional compensation appellant received from WTU ($51, 000) above the DCPS amount ($100, 000). On September 6, 2011, Saunders informed DCPS that he had rescinded appellant's leave of absence to serve as the WTU General Vice President; appellant was instructed to return to the classroom as a social worker/classroom teacher.

         On December 2, 2011, appellant filed a demand for arbitration, asking for lost wages and to be reinstated in her position as WTU's General Vice President with all powers and compensation restored; she claimed that the WTU's action violated the WTU's Constitution and By-Laws and the District of Columbia's Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act ("CMPA"), D.C. Code § 1-617.03 (a)(1) (2012 Repl.).

         On March 5, 2012, Arbitrator Stanley Mazaroff ("Arbitrator") issued a decision addressing jurisdiction and the arbitrability of appellant's claims. The Arbitrator noted that the compensation agreement expressly stated that, "[a]ny disputes concerning compensation shall be arbitrable using the American Arbitration Association," and that his jurisdiction was specifically limited to "disputes concerning compensation." Accordingly, appellant's claim for relief seeking reinstatement was outside the permissible scope of arbitration.

         At a status hearing before the Arbitrator on March 14, 2012, appellant redefined her claim, alleging that the WTU breached her compensation contract. On August 24 and 30, 2012, the parties appeared for an evidentiary hearing on the merits of appellant's claim. On September 24, 2012, the Arbitrator issued his decision, concluding that appellant and the WTU "entered into a legally enforceable agreement pertaining to [appellant's] compensation and her right 'to arbitrate any disputes concerning compensation.'"

         Ultimately, the Arbitrator found that Saunders and the WTU Executive Board did not have the authority to suspend appellant's compensation under her contract. Similarly, removal under the WTU's Constitution and By-Laws mandated a recall petition, which was never filed, and a vote by the WTU's membership. On the breach of contract claim, the Arbitrator awarded appellant $71, 065.82, the amount she had been denied in compensation and benefits from the date of her removal to the date of the arbitration hearing. The Arbitrator's September 24, 2012, award noted that "[t]his award resolves all claims and counterclaims submitted by [appellant] and the WTU to arbitration except for [appellant's] pending claim for attorney's fees and costs. All such claims . . . not expressly granted herein are hereby denied." The Arbitrator's award also noted that appellant's claim that the WTU violated her rights under the CMPA involved statutory issues, and thus, fell outside the scope of the arbitration provision. Accordingly, the CMPA claim was dismissed ...

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