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Sium v. Office of State Superintendent of Education

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

October 10, 2019

Yordanos Sium, Appellant,
v.
Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Appellee.

          Argued November 16, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAP-4119-16) (Hon. Jeanette J. Clark, Associate Judge) (Hon. Robert R. Rigsby, Associate Judge). [1]

          David A. Branch for appellant.

          Lucy E. Pittman, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Loren L. Alikhan, Solicitor General, and Stacy L. Anderson, Acting Deputy Solicitor General, were on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Glickman and Easterly, Associate Judges, and Steadman, Senior Judge.

          EASTERLY, ASSOCIATE JUDGE:

         Appellant Yordanos Sium challenges her termination for cause by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education ("OSSE"). We first conclude that Ms. Sium's failure to file an appeal to the Office of Employee Appeals ("OEA") within thirty days, as specified in D.C. Code § 1-606.03(a) (2016 Repl.), did not deprive OEA of jurisdiction to hear her case. We further conclude that, because the OEA Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") decided not to conduct an evidentiary hearing even though the parties' briefing disputed material facts, the OEA Board abused its discretion in denying Ms. Sium's petition for review. We therefore vacate and remand.

         I.

         Ms. Sium worked as a school bus driver for OSSE. In January 2011, her bus made contact with an illegally parked vehicle. She did not exit her bus and instead left the scene. The incident, which was recorded on videotape, was reported to OSSE, and an investigator interviewed Ms. Sium the following day. According to the investigator's report, Ms. Sium initially told the investigator that she had not made contact with the illegally parked vehicle, but after the investigator informed her that she had been seen making contact, she "changed her story" and apologized. OSSE cleared Ms. Sium to return to work about a week after the collision. Almost three months after the incident, OSSE sent Ms. Sium a notice of proposed termination.[2] It then informed Ms. Sium that she was terminated for cause in mid-April 2011.[3] By statute, Ms. Sium had thirty days to appeal her termination to OEA, see D.C. Code § 1-606.03(a), although OSSE did not specify this in its termination letter. Ms. Sium filed her pro se appeal in August 2013, using what appears to be an OEA form. No question on the form asked if Ms. Sium wanted an evidentiary hearing.

         OSSE moved to dismiss Ms. Sium's OEA appeal, asserting her failure to file within the requisite thirty-day timeframe deprived OEA of jurisdiction. The OEA ALJ did not explicitly rule on this motion and instead ordered briefing on the merits. In its brief, OSSE explained that the Division of Transportation had justifiably terminated Ms. Sium after "conclud[ing] that Ms. Sium's behavior, including hitting a parked car, fleeing the scene, and lying to the investigator, presented a threat to the efficiency and discipline of the school system." The agency also asserted that this was Ms. Sium's second "preventable" collision within twelve months, although it provided no detail about the earlier incident and engaged in no analysis of why either collision was, in its view, "preventable." In her pro se brief in response, Ms. Sium argued inter alia that OSSE had "cleared" her after the January 2011 collision and permitted her to return to work. She further asserted that "[c]ritical facts" alleged by OSSE had not been "determined conclusively" in its investigation; in particular, she challenged the assertions that she had been aware of the collision at the time, that she had fled the scene, and that she had lied to the investigator. Instead, she asserted that she had accepted responsibility only after she was informed by the investigator that she had made contact with the other vehicle.

         The OEA ALJ issued a written decision in October 2014 upholding Ms. Sium's termination. In one sentence of her decision, the OEA ALJ acknowledged her ability to hold an evidentiary hearing, but stated that, "[a]fter considering the parties' arguments," she had determined that an evidentiary hearing was unnecessary.

         Ms. Sium then filed pro se a petition for review with the OEA Board. Among other arguments, Ms. Sium asserted that there were disputed issues of fact and argued that the OEA ALJ had thus erred in her decision "not to conduct an [e]videntiary [h]earing."[4] In its May 2016 order denying her petition for review, the OEA Board rejected this argument. The OEA Board "relie[d] on OEA Rule 624.2 which provides that 'if the Administrative Judge grants a request for an evidentiary hearing, or makes his or her own determination that one is necessary, the Administrative Judge will so advise the parties . . ., '" and concluded that "[t]hus, it is the Administrative Judge's prerogative to hold an evidentiary hearing when it is deemed necessary." Ms. Sium unsuccessfully sought review of the OEA Board's decision in Superior Court. This appeal followed.

         II.

         "This court reviews agency decisions on appeal from the Superior Court the same way we review administrative appeals that come to us directly. Thus, in the final analysis, confining ourselves strictly to the administrative record, we review the OEA [Board]'s decision, not the decision of the Superior Court . . . ." Stevensv. District of Columbia Dep't of Health, 150 A.3d 307, 311-12 (D.C. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Before we may ...


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