D.C. Superior Court Opinions

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E.g., November 24, 2017
E.g., November 24, 2017
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  • GOVERNMENT INFORMATION

    D.C. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT / STATUTORY DEADLINE FOR DELIVERY OF DOCUMENTS TO BE STRICTLY CONSTRUED / MOOTNESS NOT NECESSARILY JUSTIFIED BY TARDY COMPLIANCE

     

     

    Précis:  (1) The D.C. Freedom of Information Act embodies a strong policy favoring disclosure of information about governmental affairs and the acts of public officials. (2) Absent statutorily-designated categories of exceptions, the D.C. version of the FOIA allows only 15 days for the District to comply with requests properly propounded upon it, irrespective of the size or volume thereof. (3) The statute provides for only one ten-day extension in “unusual circumstances,” on proper written notice to the requesting party, requiring a statement of the reasons for the extension and an expected date of delivery. (4) Unlike its federal counterpart, the D.C. FOIA does not contain a statutory “safety valve” permitting an untimely response, except for the single ten-day exception. (5) The statute expressly provides that “a court has no general equitable powers to prevent disclosure of public documents and records” in the absence of any statutory exemption. (6) Accordingly, it “requires courts to read narrowly any statutorily exemption from disclosure” and to resolve “any doubts about the applicability of the particular exemption in favor of disclosure.” (7) If litigation becomes necessary to force production of properly-requested documents, the statute provides that attorney’s fees and costs “may be awarded” to the party which “prevails in whole or in part in such suit.” (8) A tardy compliance with the disclosure terms of the FOIA will not necessarily moot such a lawsuit. (9) The concept of mootness speaks to the principle embedded in Article III of the Constitution, which requires not only a case but also a “controversy.” (10) This therefore is a question of subject matter jurisdiction and is submitted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) covering lack of jurisdiction. (11) An issue which is moot is no longer in controversy and provides no basis for a court to adjudicate it. (13) The burden in showing mootness “is a heavy one.” (12) Mootness comprehends two basic issues: (a) that interim relief or events have “completely and irrevocably eradicated” the purpose of the litigation and (b) that the question has been resolved in some fashion and does not give itself to any “reasonable expectation” that it will recur. (14) Where the defendant challenges the court’s subject matter jurisdiction, it may consider facts outside the pleadings without converting the motion and the one for summary judgment. (15) Moreover, unlike motions to dismiss based on other grounds, the facts are not construed in favor of the plaintiff and the court is free to weigh the evidence without any presumptions regarding the truthfulness of the complaint. (16) To prevail on a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, the movant must demonstrate, based on the pleadings, discovery, and any affidavits or materials submitted, that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact in dispute and that the movant is therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (17) Here, however, the court must consider all materials submitted “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and may grant relief only if a reasonable jury could not find for the defendant as a matter of law.” (18) In response, the non-moving party may not simply rest on conclusory allegations or a blanket denial of the movant’s pleadings to establish that a genuine issue of material fact is in dispute. (19) Rather, that party must come forward with a response showing that there is a genuine issue for trial and, failing that, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. (20) To qualify for an award of its reasonable attorney’s fees in an FOIA litigation case, the plaintiff must (a) be eligible to make the request, (b) entitled to the documents requested, and (c) have “substantially prevailed” in the action. (21) The D.C. FOIA must be strictly construed and because there is no “safety valve” provision in the statute, a court is powerless to alter its deadline terms. (22) Any change in the statute must occur at the hands of the City Council. (23) To allow a government agency to violate the statutory deadline for production of documents under the FOIA and tardily supply them, then seek to dismiss a suit to enforce same as moot, would effectively establish a perverse motive for the agency not to respond to such requests until after the aggrieved requester has filed an action in court, which, in turn, would permit it to avoid complying with the statute until the suit is filed, then seek to avoid paying attorney’s fees to the requester. (24) Where it is uncontested that the Government has not complied with an FOIA request until after the statutory deadline has expired, the plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment. (25) Notably, an award of attorney’s fees pursuant to the “public benefit” factor of the FOIA is not mandatory or automatic. The statute provides simply that if a plaintiff prevails in whole or in part the court “may award reasonable attorney’s fees and other costs in the litigation,” thereby permitting it to exercise its sound discretion based on the facts of a particular case. (26) In order to justify an award of attorney’s fees, a plaintiff must have brought about the disclosure of public information that is (a) of potential public benefit or value; (b) is not closely related to the plaintiff’s private or commercial interests; and (c) was not reasonably withheld by the agency under the circumstances. (27) The mere designation of documents as “public information” does not necessarily mean that their disclosure will “increase public knowledge” or establish a predicate that an award of attorney’s fees is justified. (28) In making the use determinations, the relevant consideration is whether a plaintiff’s victory “is likely to add to the fund of information that citizens may use in making vital political choices.” (29) Where, however, the court finds the public interest and the plaintiff’s personal interest to be in equipoise, the “strong policy favoring disclosure of information about governmental affairs and the acts of public officials requires that this factor must be construed in favor of disclosure – and in favor of an award of attorney’s fees as well. (30) In order to rebut a plaintiff’s claim that the defendant’s response to an FOIA request was unreasonable, the defendant has the obligation to show that it “had a reasonable basis in law for concluding that the information at issue was exempt and it had not been recalcitrant in its opposition to a valid claim or otherwise engage in obdurate behavior.”

     

    Abstract: In this D.C. Freedom of Information Act case, the Superior Court found that the Plaintiff’s reasonable request for public documentary information from the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer had not been timely granted and that Government’s delay of more than eight months beyond the deadline imposed by the statute could not be deemed moot by tardy compliance with the terms thereof, which must be strictly enforced until and unless amended by the Legislative Branch, thus also entitling the Plaintiff to an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Facts: The factual and procedural backgrounds to the case are summarized as follows: (1) The Application. On October 14, 2009, for reasons not stated in this Memorandum Opinion, the Fraternal Order of Police, the labor union of the Metropolitan Police Department, submitted a request to the District’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), requesting various documents relating to the issuance of bonuses and additional benefits to the CFO and all other employees in that office, over the previous three years. (2) The Statute. The D.C. FOIA “embodies a strong policy favoring disclosure of information about governmental affairs and the acts of public officials.” Absent statutorily-designated categories of exceptions, the D.C. version of the FOIA allows only 15 days for the District to comply with requests properly propounded upon it, irrespective of the size or volume thereof. It provides for only one ten-day extension in “unusual circumstances,” on proper written notice to the requesting party, requiring a statement of the reasons for the extension and an expected date of delivery. Unlike its federal counterpart, the D.C. FOIA does not contain a statutory “safety valve” permitting an untimely response, except for the single ten-day exception. Thus, the statute requires delivery of properly-requested documents no later than a maximum of 25 days after receiving the request, not counting weekends and legal public holidays. Accordingly, in this case, the documents were due no later than November 18, 2009. The statute expressly provides that “a court has no general equitable powers to prevent disclosure of public documents and records” in the absence of any statutory exemption. Accordingly, it “requires courts to read narrowly any statutorily exemption from disclosure” and to resolve “any doubts about the applicability of the particular exemption … in favor of disclosure.” If litigation becomes necessary to force production of properly-requested documents, the statute provides that attorney’s fees and costs “may be awarded” to the party which “prevails in whole or in part in such suit.” (3) Initial Response to Request. The District did not respond to the Plaintiff’s request at all, nor did it request an extension of time within which to do so, later asserting that the request had been misplaced. It urged that “the Act makes no allowance whatsoever for an agency’s inability to comply with a FOIA deadline, even if the request giving rise to it is extremely burdensome and it is doing everything in its power to comply.” (4) The Suit. On May 18, 2010, which was more than 180 days past the maximum statutory deadline to produce the requested documents, the Plaintiffs filed the instant suit seeking a declaratory judgment and injunction to compel the District to do so. The District was served the next day and the day after that its FOIA officer “rediscovered” the request at issue and began to provide the documents on a “rolling basis,” as discovered. By July 19, 2010, which was 60 days after suit had been filed, the District had produced a total of 236 pages of “responsive material.” (5) The Motions. That same day the District filed a motion to dismiss the suit as moot, the FOIA request having been “entirely fulfilled,” it contended. The Plaintiff filed an opposition arguing that the District was being disingenuous and that a nine-month delay in responding to an FOIA request was inexcusable. After an exchange of responses, and traverses, the Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the fact that the documents were not produced until after suit had been filed made it the “prevailing party” and entitled it to attorney’s fees and costs. Rulings: The Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Standards. (1) Mootness. This concept speaks to the principle embedded in Article III of the Constitution, which requires not only a case but also a “controversy.” This therefore is a question of subject matter jurisdiction and is, as here, submitted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) covering lack of jurisdiction. (a) An issue which is moot is no longer in controversy and provides no basis for a court to adjudicate it. The burden in showing mootness “is a heavy one.” The concept of mootness comprehends two basic issues: (i) that interim relief or events have “completely and irrevocably eradicated” the purpose of the litigation and (ii) that the question has been resolved in some fashion and does not give itself to any “reasonable expectation” that it will recur. (b) Where the defendant challenges the court’s subject matter jurisdiction, it may consider facts outside the pleadings without converting the motion and the one for summary judgment. (c) Moreover, unlike motions to dismiss based on other grounds, the facts are not construed in favor of the plaintiff and the court is free to weigh the evidence without any presumptions regarding the truthfulness of the complaint. (2) Summary Judgment. To prevail on a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, the movant must demonstrate, based on the pleadings, discovery, and any affidavits or materials submitted, that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact in dispute and that the movant is therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Here, however, the court must consider all materials submitted “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and may grant relief only if a reasonable jury could not find for the defendant as a matter of law.” In response, the non-moving party may not simply rest on conclusory allegations or a blanket denial of the movant’s pleadings to establish that a genuine issue of material fact is in dispute. Rather, that party must come forward with a response showing that there is a genuine issue for trial and, failing that, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. (3) FOIA Attorney’s Fees. To qualify for an award of its reasonable attorney’s fees in an FOIA litigation case, the plaintiff must (a) be eligible to make the request, (b) entitled to the documents requested, and (c) have “substantially prevailed” in the action. The Court applied all of the foregoing standards to the respective motions as follows: (B) Mootness. The Court acknowledged that “the District is placed in an unfortunate situation by the strictures imposed by … [the Act]” but it noted that it was because there is no “safety valve” provision in the statute that it was left powerless to grant the District any relief in this case, especially where the District had made no request for an extension of time. Inasmuch as the City Council has presumably been aware of this difficulty for the last three decades but has not exercised its sole prerogative to amend the statute, the Court concluded that it is bound by the plain meaning thereof. Absent the application of a valid statutory exemption, under the plain terms of the statute, the requesting party has “a near-absolute right” to information requested within the statutorily-prescribed period, the Court found. A tardy disclosure of requested documents, therefore, does not trigger the concept of “mootness.” Although, the Court found, there was no reasonable expectation that the Plaintiff would ever again have to bring suit to require the District to produce these same documents, the fact remained that the Plaintiff had been required to expend funds, file suit, and wait eight months for the full response that the statute required in the first place. Thus, the Court concluded, the Plaintiff “retains an interest in receiving a declaratory judgment to the effect that the District violated … [the] FOIA by failing to timely respond to … [its] request” in a matter that was “unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious,” thus also allowing it to request an award of attorney’s fees. The Court went on to note further that if it were to rule that this dispute “was mooted by the District’s eventual but excessively late response to the [Plaintiff]’s FOIA request, it would effectively establish a perverse motive for the District not to respond to FOIA requests until after the aggrieved requester filed an action in court” which “would permit the District to avoid complying with … [the] FOIA until the suit is filed, then immediately moot the suit and avoid paying attorney’s fees to the requester.” The Court concluded that it was “loathe to ratify the potential for such a bad faith result.” Accordingly, while the Court granted the District’s request to dismiss the claim for injunctive relief on the grounds of mootness, it denied its motion to dismiss with respect to declaratory relief. This ruling had the effect of preserving subject matter jurisdiction before the Court. (C) Summary Judgment. Based on that jurisdiction, the Court went on to address the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment. As adverted to above, the Court properly eschewed exercising any endemic power or equitable ruling that would alter the plain terms of the FOIA statute, observing that any such change “is legislative in nature, and is properly made to the District Columbia City Council, not this Court.” There was no material dispute that more than 180 days had elapsed between the Plaintiff’s FOIA request on May 20, 2010, and the final and full response by the District on July 19, 2010, a plain violation of the express terms of the statute. This, the Court ruled, entitled the Plaintiff to summary judgment as a matter of law. (D) FOIA Attorney’s Fees. Notably, an award of attorney’s fees pursuant to the “public benefit” factor of the FOIA is not mandatory or automatic. The statute provides simply that if a plaintiff prevails in whole or in part the court “may award reasonable attorney’ s fees and other costs in the litigation,” thereby permitting it to exercise its sound discretion based on the facts of a particular case. In order to justify an award of attorney’s fees, a plaintiff must have brought about the disclosure of public information that is (1) of potential public benefit or value; (2) is not closely related to the plaintiff’s private or commercial interests; and (3) was not reasonably withheld by the agency under the circumstances. The Court addressed these factors as follows: (a) To begin with, the Court ruled that the mere designation of documents as “public information” does not necessarily mean that their disclosure will “increase public knowledge” or establish a predicate that an award of attorney’s fees is justified. (b) In making the use determinations, the relevant consideration is whether a plaintiff’s victory “is likely to add to the fund of information that citizens may use in making vital political choices.” Here, the Court could not find that the information requested by the Plaintiff, although public, was of any “cognizable benefit” to the public as comprehended by the FOIA in its purpose of ensuring “governmental transparency.” (c) At the same time however, the Court found that the Plaintiff, a labor union, was not engaged in commercial business and its request for information regarding bonuses and other compensation paid to the Office of the CFO did not directly relate to the Plaintiff’s personal interest, either. This factor, the Court concluded, “lies in equipoise.” Nevertheless, in light of the “strong policy favoring disclosure of information about governmental affairs and the acts of public officials,” the Court found that a neutral finding as to this factor must be construed in favor of disclosure – that is, in favor of an award of attorney’s fees. (d) In order to rebut a plaintiff’s claim that the defendant’s response to an FOIA request was unreasonable, the defendant has the obligation to show that it “had a reasonable basis in law for concluding that the information at issue was exempt and it had not been recalcitrant in its opposition to a valid claim or otherwise engage in obdurate behavior.” The Court found that the District’s explanation that the Plaintiff’s FOIA request had been “inadvertently misplaced” not to be a “reasonable basis in law” for effectively withholding the information in question for nine months. It further found that the District’s “withholding of the requested documents was unreasonable and lacked a colorable basis in law,” for which no curative effort was made until after the Plaintiff had filed the instant suit. Accordingly, the Court ruled that the Plaintiff, as the prevailing party, was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. (D) Conclusions: (1) The Defendant’s motion to dismiss on the basis of mootness was granted in part, as to injunctive relief. (2) The Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment was granted as to declaratory relief. (3) The Plaintiff’s request for an award of attorney’s fees and costs for ensuring compliance with the D.C. FOIA was granted. (4) The Plaintiff was ordered to file an affidavit attesting to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred in the prosecution of this case within 17 days, the Defendant having another 14 days within which to respond. (5) This order of the Court was deemed final and the case closed, save for the purpose of determining the Plaintiff’s request for fees and costs.

  • PROBATE / ESTATES AND TRUSTS

    ALLOWED EXPENSES FOR COURT-APPOINTED GUARDIAN FOR TRAVEL AND MILEAGE

     

     

    Précis: (1) The D.C. Superior Court has four payment systems for court-appointed counsel, one of which is the Guardianship Fund for “intervention” cases in the Probate Division, wherein lawyers are appointed as guardians to protect the estates and personal health and safety of their wards and may, in turn, present payment vouchers to the Court for legal fees and expenses involved with their official duties. (2)  Such guardians may bill for both the time involved in travel for a necessary purpose in any given case as well as the mileage involved, on the theory that the time consumed in travel in order to provide necessary services to ward at his or her caretaker location could otherwise have been used for other billable cases. (3) Compensation for travel between a lawyer’s office and the courthouse, however, is not allowed. (4) It is essential that itemized travel entries be made as to time, date, and places, and that they are separately submitted for court approval. (5) This practice will bring the Probate Division into conformity with the procedures in the CJA and CCAN guidelines.

     

    Abstract: In this case the Court considered requests for attorney’s time and mileage involved with traveling pursuant his duties as a court-appointed guardian in the Probate Division, and determined that while both were chargeable, the fees and costs charged should be reduced under the circumstances. Facts: (1) General Policy Background. The Probate Division of the D.C. Superior Court has a special Guardian Fund from which it compensates court-appointed guardians in “intervention” cases in that Division for legal fees and allowable expenses associated with managing the estates of wards of the Court. The Probate caseload has burgeoned significantly in recent years. Increasingly, Senior Judges who have developed a degree of proficiency in these matters over their judicial careers have been called upon to handle the guardianship cases. As a result of varying judicial staffing, therefore, the policies for court compensation of appointed counsel in these matters has similarly varied. Unlike the practices for compensation of court-appointed counsel in other Divisions of the Court, such as the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) in the Criminal Division and under the program for Counsel for Child Abuse and Neglect (CCAN) in the Family Court, there has been no formal set of policies and guidelines for guardians in the Probate Division.  Thus, over the years, there has been a varying application of rules for compensation, depending upon which Judge was dealing with any given case. In some instances, court-appointed guardians were approved for payment at the full statutory rate (currently $90 per hour), but in other instances which did not necessarily require legal skills, they might be compensated at, say, half that amount. Additional confusion arose over compensation for expenses, particularly those associated with travel time, which some Judges regarded as part of “overhead” endemic to a law practice. In 2004, however, the Presiding Judge of the Probate Division ruled that travel time was a legitimately compensable expense “when shown to be appropriate and necessary.” He based this decision on the premises that there is a statutory requirement for guardians to see each ward at least once a month and to stay in contact with their housing service providers. Thus, frequent travel is necessary to visit wards in various locations in order to be “the eyes of the court” so that their safety and well-being may be assured. Moreover, since everyone has the same 24 hours in each day, every hour a lawyer was traveling to visit a ward was an hour for which he could not work and be compensated on any other case. (2) Analogous Programs. The Court referenced four other programs for compensating  court-appointed counsel precatory to its ruling establishing standards for similar payments out of the Guardianship Fund. (a) It noted that the CJA Program, the most substantive, provides for a selection of counsel from a list of volunteer attorneys who have been carefully vetted and whose hourly rate of compensation by the Court is set by statute, governed by a standing court committee, and excepted to by the trial judge presiding in each case.  The overall scheme is regulated by the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration which has the authority to make substantive changes in matters such as compensation for travel or mileage, although in that regard, time and travel between an attorney’s office to the courthouse are not allowed. As the Court noted herein, the CJA program is “subject to judicial discretion.” (b) The Court made a similar analysis of the Federal CJA Program in U.S. District Court here. That program also allows for both time spent in “necessary and reasonable” travel and for mileage as a compensable expense; parking fees are also allowed.  Before undertaking a trip outside the D.C. metropolitan area, however, permission of the Court must first be obtained. (c) There are similar requirements for itemized expenses in the CCAN program. (d) The IRS also allows for the costs of travel between a taxpayer’s home and business as deductible expenses. This led the Court to conclude that the charging of travel costs is a legitimate expense, finding that “there seems little rational basis for disallowing the time necessary consumed thereby as work for which the attorney is legitimately entitled to be paid. True, it pointed out, that such time is not productive in and of itself to the case and that travel does not require legal skill, but the Court analogized this to “waiting time” for a lawyer’s presence in court waiting for the case to be called, as “billable time.” Rulings: The Court of Appeals ruled on the issues presented as follows:  (A) Time and Travel. On the theory that any lawyer owes a pre-existent duty of care to the client, the Court found that it was the “general consensus” on this issue that it served the “best interests” of the ward to allow the billing of both attorney’s time and mileage expenses for payment from the Guardianship Fund to lawyers serving in that capacity in the Probate Division.  Thus, the attorney-guardian will be permitted to charge for travel expenses, except for those associated with coming and going to and from the courthouse, and may also bill for the time involved at the current rate in the Probate Division. The Court admonished that it would therefore be “essential” that itemized travel entries be made as to time, date, and places, and that they be separately submitted for court approval. This practice, the Court noted, would bring that Division into conformity with the procedures in the CJA and CCAN guidelines.  (B) As Applied. This Memorandum Opinion speaks the attorney-guardian’s requests for compensation in two cases:  (1) The first involved requests for time, mileage to and from his office to the ward’s nursing home, and for the presence and time for his paralegal with whom, he said, he needed to consult, the total billed time for all of which was 3.5 hours. Additionally billed in the case were time and travel for attending a Judge in Chambers hearing at the courthouse the next day, together with expense for the presence of the same paralegal as a “second chair,” during the hearing. Under its ruling in this case that time and travel to the courthouse are not compensable, the Court denied those requests, noting that, aside from the paralegal’s mere presence, Counsel had not provided any justification for needing him or her at the hearing, and the Court could perceive none.  Accordingly, it denied that “line item.”  Beyond that, the Judge, now in his 29th year of service on the Superior Court, found that based on his “experience as Judge in Chambers [during that tenure], it appears unlikely that counsel’s actual time in Court for such a hearing, including any waiting time, exceeded 2.0 hours at the outside,” inasmuch as such hearings “seeking temporary relief typically require little time in determining whether statutory incapacity findings of or certifications have yet been satisfied.” The Court therefore allowed only 2.0 hours for the hearing in that case. (2) On the same lawyer’s request for similar billings and expenses in a second case submitted for approval at the same time, the Court made similar rulings.  The lawyer also brought along his paralegal and billed for that person’s time on a visit to the ward’s caretaker.  He subsequently billed for travel and parking for his appearance in court 2 1/2 months later. The Court allowed 2.8 hours for the guardian’s time on the caretaker visit and 2.0 hours for the court appearance. Although again noting the absence of any stated reason for the paralegal’s presence, the Court allowed $45 an hour for those services, “based on common experience and custom,” it said. (C) Conclusions. Based on the aforestated standards the Court approved the lawyer’s request in the first case for 9.2 hours at $90 an hour and 2.9 hours at $45 an hour, for a total of $958.00 in legal fees, and for $48.77 in expenses, for a grand total of $1,007.27. In the second case, the Court approved 7.9 hours at $90 an hour and $45 an hour for 2.1 hours , totaling $805.50 for services and $54.88 for expenses, for a grand total of $860.38.

  • D.C. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

    AWARD OF ATTORNEY’S FEES / AFFIRMATIVE CONSIDERATION OF PRESS INTERESTS

     

     

    Précis: : (1) The D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides for production of government documents and sets forth a schedule containing a specified time period for same, all subject to privilege, redaction, and other limitations. (2) It provides that if the District fails to meet that deadline, a party may file suit to compel production.  (3) If litigation becomes necessary, it also provides that the court “may” award attorney’s fees and costs if the plaintiff is the “prevailing party,” whether “in whole or in part,” and can show a “causal nexus” between the production of the documents and the lawsuit. (4) The statute does not require a court to analyze any particular factors or criteria before making an award. Rather, the use of the subjunctive verb “may” indicates that the court has discretion to award attorney’s fees and costs at its discretion. (5) Where the City Council borrows the terms of a similar federal statute, a court may look to the case law governing the latter for guidance. (6) For the D.C. FOIA, four recognized federal factors may be considered in in making this determination to award attorney’s fees and costs: (a) the public benefit derived from the case; (b) the commercial benefit of the complainant; (c) the nature of the complainant’s interest in the records sought; and (d) whether the Government’s withholding had a reasonable basis.

     

    Abstract: Based on a finding that the press has a preferred status in seeking the discovery of documents under the D.C. Freedom of Information, in this case the Court awarded a newspaper attorney’s fees and costs against the District Government for its failure to timely provide information regarding the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC). Facts: The D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1976, providing for production of government documents and setting forth a schedule containing a specified time period for same, all subject, of course, to privilege, redaction, and other limitations. The statute provides that if the District fails to meet that deadline, a party may file suit to compel production.  If litigation becomes necessary, it also provides that the court “may” award attorney’s fees and costs if the plaintiff is the “prevailing party” and can show a “causal nexus” between the production of the documents and the lawsuit. In early 2008, the Plaintiff, a prisoners’ rights publication, filed an FOIA request with the D.C. Government with regard to the DOC. Government Counsel informed Plaintiff that some documents were available but that the bulk were in the government storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, further stating that due to the “overwhelming volume of documents” the agency “was not in a position to provide” them all at that time. When the documents were not forthcoming for another month, the Plaintiff filed this suit. Several court orders then followed, requiring the Government to produce the documents by ensuing deadlines. When none was met, the Court found the Government’s efforts to be “excessively dilatory” rather than “unavoidable.” Ultimately, the Government turned over more than 600 documents pursuant to the FOIA request. Having secured the documents only after initiating litigation, the Plaintiff filed a motion for fees and costs, which the Government opposed.  Rulings: The Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Standards. (1) Prevailing Party. The FOIA provides that attorney’s fees may be awarded to the party who prevailed in the litigation “in whole or in part” and can show a “causal nexus” between the court action and the agency’s surrender of the requested documents. (2) Discretion. The Court noted that the FOIA statute “does not require … [it] to analyze any particular factors or criteria before making an award.” Rather, the use of [the subjunctive verb] ‘may’ indicates that the … intent was to empower the Court to award attorney’s fees and costs at its discretion,” meaning that such an award is not automatic. (3) Federal Analogy. It is a well-settled principle that where the City Council borrows the terms of a similar federal statute, a court may look to the case law governing the latter for guidance.  The Court found “instructive” four recognized federal factors in making this determination: (a) the public benefit derived from the case; (b) the commercial benefit of the complainant; (c) the nature of the complainant’s interest in the records sought; and (d) whether the Government’s withholding had a reasonable basis. The Court applied these factors to this case as follows: (B) Public Benefit. The Court ruled that this factor requires consideration of (1) the effect of the litigation for which fees are requested and (2) the potential public value of the information sought. The award of fees is justified, the Court ruled, where “the complainant’s victory is likely to add to the fund of information that citizens may use in making vital political choices.” It found that the records recovered via the litigation “present a potentially significant public value because they contain information that details expenditures of public monies by the“ DOC.  Moreover, the Court found the Plaintiff to be part of the news media, the function of which is to “gather information of potential interest to … the public” and which would be able “to use its editorial skills … to synthesize and analyze these documents, and then publish articles” of relevant interest based on them. In so doing, the Court further found, the Plaintiff would be “increasing public awareness of conditions and promoting transparency in the DOC’s operation” thus making “the public … better equipped to determine whether the DOC is effectively carrying out its stated mission and may hold this public agency accountable through the political process if it is not.” Finding that the Plaintiff’s litigation had finally prompted the surrender of the requested documents, the Court ruled that it had was the prevailing party and had shown the required “causal nexus” to qualify for an award of fees and costs. (C) Commercial Benefit. This factor speaks to whether a complainant may receive some commercial profit from obtaining and using the documents which, if so, could negate the award of fees and costs to boot. The Plaintiff is a Section 501(c)(3) non-profit organization functioning as a “news journal.” The Court found that there was “no foreseeable profits” forthcoming to the Plaintiff as a result of obtaining the documents. Under these circumstances, the Court found this factor to weigh in favor of the requested compensation. (D) Complainant’s Interest. The Court also ruled that “news interests should not be considered commercial interests” and should generally result in the award of fees and costs. Noting that the District had made no argument to the contrary, the Court found that “Plaintiff’s only interest in the documents is … providing information to its readers about litigation involving the DOC.”  Accordingly, this factor also weighed in favor the Plaintiff. (E) Government Withholding. The case law holds that a defendant need only show “a colorable basis in law” for this factor to be considered in its favor. Here, however, the Court found that the District had failed on this factor, as well, because of its “clear violation” of the FOIA. It had never asserted any right to withhold the documents pursuant to any exemption to the statute, but had simply been dilatory in providing them, necessitating litigation due to “its ineffectual and protracted searches and production of responsive records.” Finding “no reasonable basis in the law” to justify this conduct the Court ruled that this factor would not benefit the Government. (F) Conclusions. The Court concluded that the District had unjustifiably failed in its obligations under the FOIA, had necessitated litigation in which the Plaintiff had been the prevailing party and was therefore entitled to the award of attorney’s fees and costs. It found that the reasonable fee for the legal services provided was $75,000 plus $290 for costs.

  • DOMESTIC RELATIONS / CHILD CUSTODY AND SUPPORT / COMMON LAW “NECESSARIES DOCTRINE” 

    ATTORNEY’S FEES AND COSTS AWARDED TO PREVAILING PARTY IN MOTION TO MODIFY CUSTODY  

     

     

    Précis: (1) As a general matter, under the American Rule parties in a civil suit are responsible for their own attorney’s fees and costs. (2) There is no specific authority which authorizes a Judge of the Superior Court to direct a non-custodial parent to pay the attorney’s fees and costs incurred by the custodial parent in defense of a motion to modify custody. (3) However, a common law exception to the American Rule authorizes a court to award attorney’s fees to a custodial parent who successfully defends against a motion to modify custody, not as counsel fees per se, but as reimbursement to the custodial parent for the “necessaries” of a minor child. (4) A court can award compensation under the Necessaries Doctrine only if it finds that the custodial parent’s engagement of legal counsel was necessary to protect the welfare and best interest of the child. (5) Once that threshold decision is affirmatively made, the decision as to whether to award compensation, and if so, how much, lies within the broad discretion of the court. (6) Factors to be taken into consideration in making this determination are the following: (a) the difficulty of the case; (b) the result of the litigation; (c) the nature and quality of the legal services; (d) the skills of legal counsel; (e) the respective abilities of the parties to pay; (f) whether the litigation has been oppressive or burdensome to the party seeking the award; (g) the motivation and behavior of each of the parties; and (h) whether the fees were incurred in the best interests of the child. (7) The amount of fees and costs awarded pursuant to a court’s discretion under the Necessaries Doctrine does not require a mathematical computation of the time consumed multiplied by any particular hourly rate. (8) The Necessaries Doctrine does not apply only to cases where the parent seeking an award of fees had sole custody of the child pursuant to a pre-existing custody decree or settlement agreement and was forced in furtherance of the child’s best interest, to retain that custody against the non-custodial parent’s motion. (9) Similarly, there is no threshold requirement that such an award can only be made after a finding that one party has acted in bad faith or had unreasonably caused the litigation to be oppressive or burdensome against the other. 

     

    Abstract: The Father’s attempt in this post-divorce child custody case to wrest joint custody away from the Mother regarding their 11-year-old autistic son was not only unsuccessful, but it also cost him well over half a million dollars in incurred and awarded attorney’s fees for the privilege. Facts: After a long and contentious divorce in December 2004, the parents in this case entered a settlement agreement resolving all issues of child custody and support with regard to their twin boys, one of whom had been diagnosed with severe autism and related complications. The agreement provided that the Defendant, the children’s Mother, would have primary physical custody and the Father, the Plaintiff, would have scheduled overnight visitations; the parents would have joint legal custody. Provision was also made for a “treatment coordinator” to assist the parents in making decision regarding the treatment of the afflicted child and a “parent coordinator” to work with the parties in developing effective communication and co-parenting skills in reaching informal resolutions to disagreements in certain specified areas. At the request of the parties, the Court incorporated, but did not merge, the settlement agreement into the final decree, issued in January 2005. Five years later, the Father filed a motion to modify the settlement agreement to grant him sole legal custody of the autistic child, alleging that his Mother was hampering the continuing treatment for his difficulty. The Mother filed a cross-motion for sole legal custody in her own right and sought reimbursement for private school tuition and related costs in the amount of approximately $67,000. At the ensuing hearing, the Court took testimony from a dozen witnesses, including the parties, experts on both sides, the child’s therapist, his teacher, and the parent coordinator. Hundreds of pages of documentary evidence were also received and the parties each submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Court issued its decision in October 2010, finding that the parents’ inability to work together and managing the child’s autism-related treatment was an unforeseen material and substantial change in the circumstances which justified the Court’s modifying the 2004 settlement agreement in his best interest. On the merits, the Court found that the Mother was best able to make collaborative decisions in the child’s best interest concerning his autism-treatment and modified the settlement agreement accordingly. No changes were made to any other aspect thereof, however. The Father is a medical doctor and a successful property developer and the Mother is a prominent government contracts lawyer. Astonishingly, each incurred approximately $430,000 in legal fees and costs in the course of the litigation on these cross-motions. After her motion was granted by the Court, the Mother filed a motion for attorney’s fees as the prevailing party, arguing that it that it had been necessary for her to retain legal counsel with sufficient expertise in this field to protect the child’s welfare and best interests under the “Necessaries Exception” to the general American Rule that each party in a given litigation case is expected to bear his or her own attorney’s fees and costs. She sought reimbursement of approximately $378,800 of the $435,400 (87%) in total fees that she had incurred. The Father opposed the motion on the grounds that (1) the cross-motions constituted a “joint” effort to modify the settlement agreement and each party should still be expected to bear its own fees and costs; (2) both, therefore, had agreed that it needed modification; (3) it was the Mother’s cross-motion which expanded the litigation; (4) she had only prevailed on the single issue of decisional authority for the child’s autism treatment but he had prevailed on all other issues; (5) there was no bad faith or any oppressiveness on his part in the litigation; and (6) the Mother had the ability to pay her own fees and costs. After several rounds of briefs and oral argument, the Court issued this Memorandum Order. Rulings: The Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Standards. The various aspects of the Court’s opinion were based on the following legal standards: (1) As a general matter, under the American Rule parties in a civil suit are responsible for their own attorney’s fees and costs. (2) There is no specific authority which authorizes a Judge of the Superior Court to direct a non-custodial parent to pay the attorney’s fees and costs incurred by the custodial parent in defense of a motion to modify custody. (3) However, a common law exception to the American Rule authorizes a court to award attorney’s fees to a custodial parent who successfully defends against a motion to modify custody, not as counsel fees per se, but as reimbursement to the custodial parent for the “necessaries” of a minor child. (4) A court can award compensation under the Necessaries Doctrine only if it finds that the custodial parent’s engagement of legal counsel was necessary to protect the welfare and best interest of the child. (5) Once that threshold decision is affirmatively made, the decision as to whether to award compensation, and if so, how much, lies within the broad discretion of the court. (6) Factors to be taken into consideration in making this determination under the controlling Paine case (1970) are the following: (a) the difficulty of the case; (b) the result of the litigation; (c) the nature and quality of the legal services; (d) the skills of legal counsel; (e) the respective abilities of the parties to pay; (f) whether the litigation has been oppressive or burdensome to the party seeking the award; (g) the motivation and behavior of each of the parties; and (h) whether the fees were incurred in the best interests of the child. (7) The amount of fees and costs awarded pursuant to a court’s discretion under the Necessaries Doctrine does not require a mathematical computation of the time consumed multiplied by any particular hourly rate. (B) Necessity of Counsel. As a threshold issue, the Court had “no difficulty” in finding that it had been necessary for the best interests of the child for the Mother to retain experienced counsel to defend against the Father’s motion to change legal custody. It found that the issues had been “very complex,” requiring “extensive pre-trial discovery,” and mastery of a neurological problem that required a tremendous amount of research in order to work with expert witnesses. Although the Mother is a lawyer, her expertise is far afield from the issues presented in this case. The Court found that it was therefore “essential” that she retain experienced domestic relations attorneys, just as the Father had done in prosecuting the motion. (C) Plaintiff’s Arguments. Before moving on to determine whether an award of fees was appropriate, the Court addressed each of the Father’s arguments in opposition to the Mother’s motion for same, observing throughout its discussion that his arguments “misstat[ed] the law,” were “inconsistent with the law,” “mischaracterized the record,” were “not … accurate description[s] of the proceedings,” or only had “some surface appeal.” The Court rejected the Father’s argument that (1) the Necessaries Doctrine may be applied only where the parent seeking an award of fees had sole custody of the child pursuant to a pre-existing custody decree or settlement agreement and was forced in furtherance of the child’s best interest, to retain that custody against the non-custodial parent’s motion, ruling that sole custody is not a pre-condition for same; (2) similarly, the Court rejected the Father’s argument that such an award can only be made after a finding that he had acted in bad faith or had unreasonably caused the litigation to be oppressive or burdensome against the Mother, ruling that there is no such threshold requirement; (3) the Court also found that the Mother had not forfeited her right to the equivalent of attorney’s fees simply because she had filed a cross-motion, ruling that such an action would not have been necessary had the Father himself not made “a unilateral decision” to attempt to modify it; (4) that defense, the Court found, was necessitated by the Father’s “intolerance of the defendant’s views” regarding the medical treatment of the child, going to the extent of attempting to deprive the Mother of legal custody altogether, thus “open[ing] the litigation as wide as possible” on this issue, (5) (a) finding that the issue of sole custody far overshadowed any other raised by the Father’s motion and that, (b) inasmuch as the Mother had successfully defended against it, the Court concluded that it was “one on which the defendant undeniably prevailed,” and (c) rejecting the Father’s request for additional litigation discovery to determine which portions of the Mother’s attorney’s fees related directly to the single issue on which she had prevailed, (d) pointing out that the amount of fees to be awarded under such circumstances is not formulaic, but is subject to the trial court’s broad discretion; and finally, (6) the Court therefore found it immaterial whether the Mother, as the prevailing party, could pay her own attorney’s fees incurred in defense against the Father’s motion, ruling that as long as the fees awarded are not punitive in nature, and as long as there is a careful discretionary apportionment of attorney’s fees depending on the respective financial abilities of the parties as one of the several factors, there is no need to resolve the “necessaries” issue under this rubric. (D) Paine Factors. The Court then turned to address the factors set forth in the Paine case, seriatim as follows: (1) Results of Litigation. The Court observed that the central issue in this portion of the litigation between the parents was which should be granted the final decision-making authority over the treatment of the child in question. It reiterated that she was the prevailing party on this issue which It found had been “the focus of virtually the entire trial” and, therefore, must have absorbed “the vast majority of … [the Mother’s] total attorney’s fees and costs. (2) Case Difficulty/Legal Skills. The Court also re-emphasized the complexity of the litigation, noting that “each party [had] retained two experienced domestic relations lawyers from highly-respected law firms” who “were well prepared and organized, and … conducted themselves at all times with the highest level of skill and professionalism.” The Court noted that the Father himself had incurred more than $441,600 in attorney’s fees and costs, while the Mother’s billing for same was more than $435,400, as indicia of both the complexity of the litigation and the experience level of the respective lawyers. (3) Ability to Pay. The record showed that the Father had a net worth of more than $14.6 million, not counting assets which he held abroad, while the Mother had a net worth of $1.3 million, with an annual income that had substantially decreased each year since 2009. The Court found that the record in the entire case already contained “ample” evidence of the parties’ respective financial conditions and further found that there was no need for additional discovery to calculate them. (4) Oppressiveness. The Court explicitly found that the Father had not pursued his motion and modify legal custody with any bad faith or intent to be oppressive or unduly burdensome to the Mother. Although finding that his motivation in initiating the litigation was “largely irrelevant to the primary focus” of the Necessaries Doctrine, the Court did find that “it was the plaintiff’s behavior and attitude toward the defendant that was primarily responsible for the parties’ failure to make joint treatment decisions in … [their child]’s best interests.” (5) Best Interests of Child. Accordingly, the Court expressly found that the attorney’s fees and costs which the Mother was seeking “where necessary to the design and implementation of an appropriate and consistent treatment plan for … [the child]’s” afflictions. (E) Conclusions. In sum, because of the principal issue in the case, its difficulty, the superiority of the Father’s financial position and his behavior leading to the litigation, the reasonableness of the Mother’s fees and costs, and the clear finding that they were incurred in the best interests of the child, the Court ruled that they fell under the “necessaries” exception to the American Rule and found that an award to the Mother of $250,000 (which took the father’s total attorney’s fees responsibility in the case to approximately $691,000) was appropriate under the circumstances, noting that this sum accounted only for about two-thirds of the Mother’s attorney’s fees and costs, and giving the Father 40 days within which to pay it. 

  • CRIMINAL LAW AND PROCEDURE 

    DRIVING WHILE INTOXICATED CASES / ACCURACY OF “INTOXILYZER” MACHINE 

     

     

    Précis: (1) The pertinent D.C. statute states that that a person is guilty of DWI if s/he operates, or is in physical control of, any motor vehicle in the District of Columbia and at the time had a BAC of .08 grams or more per 210 liters of breath, as reported by a generally-accepted “intoxilyzer” machine. Where the reported score is .20 or more, a defendant is subject to a mandatory jail sentence which cannot be altered or suspended by a court. The statute also requires as a pre-condition for the admissibility of the machine’s output that the police officer or the technician responsible for maintaining and calibrating the machine certifies that the breath test was conducted in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications and that the equipment on which the breath test was conducted has been tested within the past three months and has been found to be accurate. (2) In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must (a) accept as true all allegations contained in the complaint; (b) construe all facts and inferences in favor of the plaintiff; (c) interpret the pleadings so as to do substantial justice; although (d) the court is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation; rather, (e) a complaint must provide sufficient information to set forth the legal elements of a viable claim for relief or to permit inferences to be drawn from the complaint that such elements exist; and (f) raise a right to relief above a speculative level to that which plausibly shows an entitlement to same. (3) Civil claims arising out of a common nucleus of operative fact may not be split between federal and local courts. If a plaintiff wishes to preserve a state law claim based on the same transaction that underlies a federal claim, the plaintiff must join all aspects the state claim as pendant count(s) in the federal case, setting forth all aspects thereof. (4) The requirement under D.C. Code § 12-309 that a prospective plaintiff must notify the District through proper channels within six months of the event complained of is mandatory and said notice must be actually received by the District within that time period, otherwise the suit may not be maintained. There is no set format constituting such notice. Section 12-309, however, does not bar a claim where the plaintiff was justifiably and completely unaware that s/he had sustained any injury. The District has the burden of showing lack of such notification. (5) The Government’s knowing use of improper evidence in a criminal case constitutes a basis for a Section 1983 claim. (6) A claim for false imprisonment requires a showing that the underlying conviction has been reversed or formally set aside on the ground that the defendant was not guilty of the offense and, based on clear and convincing evidence, that s/he did not commit any of the acts charged in connection therewith. 

     

    Abstract: A total of 29 Plaintiffs who had been convicted of Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) on the basis of the results of mis-calibrated breath-alcohol testing machines, filed civil rights suits under Section 1983 in U.S. District Court and simultaneous civil suits in D.C. Superior Court for negligence and false imprisonment, which prompted dismissal motions by the District of Columbia and resulted in a multiplicity of rulings that allowed several of the local cases to proceed. Facts: The factual and procedural backgrounds to this case are summarized as follows: (1) Erroneous BAC Reports. Between January 2007 and December 2009, the Plaintiffs in these consolidated cases were charged with DWI, based on the results of a machine known as the “Intoxilyzer 500EN,” which measures breath-alcohol content (BAC).  The machines used in each case reported a BAC score higher than the statutory presumption of intoxication. All were convicted, several of them served jail terms, others were placed on a year’s probation, and all had their driver’s licenses suspended. On February 4, 2010, the D.C. Department of Transportation publicly announced that it had discovered that the BAC machines had been improperly calibrated and were turning out readings “that were unacceptably outside [above] the margin of error.”  Approximately three weeks later, on February 26th, the Office of the D.C. Attorney General mailed notifications of the defects to each individual whom it believed had been tested with the affected instruments about the errors. Approximately three months later, on June 4, 2010, the District also sent letters to the DC Superior Court trial lawyers Association, together with a list of those potentially affected, which included the names of 25 of the 29 Plaintiffs in the federal and local suits. Evidence existed, however, which indicated that the District had known of these problems as early as 2008, when it hired an expert consultant to assess the validity of the machines’ output, who reported that the problem was that the District was not properly testing the machines for accuracy and concluded that none of the BAC scores they reported were valid. (2) Procedural Steps. (a) Federal Cases. In June and July 2010, sixteen of the Plaintiffs herein filed separate suits in U.S. District Court asserting that the District had violated their constitutional rights under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. They sought damages under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, based on impermissible actions under color of local law, but did not assert any state common law claims. The District filed motions to dismiss, arguing that any assertion that a criminal conviction was invalid requires that it was overturned or otherwise formally invalidated. Eventually, the District Court dismissed their cases without prejudice. (b) Local Cases. Prior to that dismissal, in August 2010, the lead Plaintiff herein filed a complaint in Superior Court alleging negligence, negligent training and supervision, and res ipsa loquitur. That filing was followed in February 2011, when the other Plaintiffs herein filed a consolidated complaint based on the same allegations, as well as malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. All the cases were consolidated and assigned to the author of this Memorandum Opinion, which issued in response to the District’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District argued that (1) the Plaintiffs who had filed the federal complaints were engaging in impermissible claim-splitting in pursuing their actions in Superior Court; (2) they did not provide the District sufficient notice prior to filing suit, as required by D.C. Code § 12-309; and (3) the tort of negligent investigation is not recognize in the District of Columbia. The Plaintiffs denied all these contentions in a response to the motion. Rulings: The Superior Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Standards. (1) The pertinent D.C. Statute states that that a person is guilty of DWI if s/he operates, or is in physical control of, any motor vehicle in the District of Columbia and at the time had a BAC of .08 grams or more per 210 liters of breath, as reported by a generally-accepted “intoxilyzer” machine. Where the reported score is .20 or more, a defendant is subject to a mandatory jail sentence which cannot be altered or suspended by a court. The statute also requires as a pre-condition for the admissibility of the machine’s output “that the police officer or the technician responsible for maintaining and calibrating the machine certifies that the breath test was conducted in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications and that the equipment on which the breath test was conducted has been tested within the past 3 months and has been found to be accurate.” (2) In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must (a) accept as true all allegations contained in the complaint; (b) construe all facts and inferences in favor of the plaintiff; (c) interpret the pleadings so as to do substantial justice; although (d) the court is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation; rather, (e) a complaint must provide sufficient information to set forth the legal elements of a viable claim for relief or to permit inferences to be drawn from the complaint that such elements exist; and (f) raise a right to relief above a speculative level to that which plausibly shows an entitlement to same. (B) Claim-Splitting/Pendent Jurisdiction. Where the Plaintiffs who had filed the federal claims were concerned, the District relied on the 2-1 holding of the D.C. Court of Appeals in the Gilles case (1992), involving the revocation of a taxi license based on excessive points accrued, which is the controlling authority on this issue. These Plaintiffs distinguished it on the grounds that it was predicated on the doctrine of res judicata, wherein a federal court had summarily dismissed a local claim under pendent jurisdiction (a.k.a. “supplemental jurisdiction”) prior to trial, which, they argued, is not applicable here. The primary issue in Gilles was whether the plaintiffs were required to assert all claims arising from a common nucleus of operative facts in the pendent aspect in federal case or whether they were subsequently permitted to file local claims in Superior Court. The Court of Appeals found that the federal pendent case had been summarily dismissed, thus constituting a final judgment on the merits which “embodied all of a party’s rights arising out of the transaction involved,” including not only those which were directly pleaded, but also those “which might have been raised in the prior action.” The Appeals Court advised that “a plaintiff in virtually every case should file all pendent claims and test the [federal] court’s discretion” as to whether to adjudicate the local claims. The Court reasoned that “requiring [a] plaintiff to present all pendent state claims in the initial federal action promotes fairness to litigants by simplifying the rules of pleading while encouraging judicial economy by disposing of a controversy, if possible, and a single proceeding.” The rule thus became one requiring that “if a plaintiff wishes to preserve a state law claim based on the same transaction that underlies the federal claim, the plaintiff must join the state claim as a count in the federal court complaint,” setting forth all aspects thereof. (C) As Applied. The Court applied the case ruling to the quaere, “Where there exists a potentially viable federal claim, must a plaintiff file all potential claims arising out of the same nucleus of fact as the federal claim in federal court in order to avoid an effective waiver of the associated state law claim?” The federal Plaintiffs cited two federal cases which they contended contradicted the D.C. Court of Appeals holding in Gilles. The first was the classic United Mine Workers case (1966), in which U.S. Supreme held that a plaintiff may choose to file parallel state and federal actions. The second was the New York Shipping case (1988), in which the D.C. Circuit held that “in no event is there a federal jurisdictional bar to fragmented litigation” of this type. They argued that Gilles mandated dismissal only when the state claims had been disposed of by a final judgment or its equivalent in the federal case, which was thus barred by res judicata. In the instant case, however, the federal Plaintiffs’ cases dismissed without prejudice and there was no contention that the dismissal constituted a final judgment. The Court in the instant case found that, the factor of res judicata notwithstanding, Gilles “applies regardless of the current status of the complaints filed in federal court” and it incorporated that holding in ruling in the instant case that “if a plaintiff wishes to preserve a state law claim based on the same transaction that underlies a federal claim, the plaintiff must join the state claim as a count in the federal court complaint and invoke the federal court’s pendent jurisdiction” first. (D) Section 12-309 Notice. (1) The Notice Requirement. This well-known statutory provision requires that before filing suit against the District of Columbia, a prospective plaintiff must notify it in writing, through specified channels, which must be received within six months after the incident embodying the claim, setting forth the approximate time, place, cause, and circumstances thereof. This notice requirement is necessary in order to give the District an opportunity “to gather all pertinent facts, and, if possible, adjust the claim, as well as to protect the District from unreasonable claims.” The requirement is unambiguous and failure to give such timely written notice precludes the claim altogether. At the same time, however, “precise exactness is not absolutely essential” to such notice. (2) Commencement of Time. On this issue, the question in the instant case became which date control as to the Plaintiffs’ imputed initial knowledge of the basis of their claim. The District contended that the controlling date was that on which each had been charged, arguing that each Plaintiff (a) knew exactly how much alcohol s/he had consumed prior to the respective arrests; (b) had the ability to investigate the alleged charge through the usual discovery afforded a defendant in a criminal case; (c) had the ability to challenge Intoxilyzer readings, as well as the accuracy and calibration of the machines themselves during the criminal trials; and (d) had a clear motive to prove his or her innocence and therefore should have exercised “reasonable diligence.” The Court implicitly interpreted the District’s position on these points as arguing that, although it had wrongfully convicted the Plaintiffs, sent some of them to jail, imposed a criminal record on all of them, and revoked their licenses, they were at fault because they did not discover its malfeasance in a more expeditious manner, and rejected that argument. Rather, it adopted the Plaintiffs’ argument that Section 12-309 “does not bar a claim where the claimant was justifiably, and completely, unaware that he or she had sustained any injury at all.” The Court found that “there was no reasonable way for the consolidated Plaintiffs to have known that they had sustained injuries of the specific type alleged in their complaints” based on the use of a mis-calibrated Intoxilyzer machine at the time of their arrests. The District replied that, nevertheless, there were two alternative dates on which the notice period could have commenced, i.e., either February 26, 2010, when the Office of the D.C. Attorney General officially sent written notification to each individual believed to have been tested with the defective machines, or June 4, 2010, when the District sent a similar letter to the President and Vice-President of the D.C. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association which included a list of affected arrestees and their respective case numbers, containing the names of 25 of the 29 consolidated Plaintiffs. (i) The Court found the February 26th date to be inapplicable because there was no evidence regarding what level of specificity that announcement provided as to the time period of the improper calibrations, the specific Intoxilyzer machines involved, or which criminal defendants had been affected by the improper calibrations. Its implication, the Court found, was to require the persons affected to conduct their own diligent search for information as to whether their individual criminal convictions had been called into question by the defective machines, a course of conduct which the Court rejected as unreasonable. (ii) The Court also rejected the June 4th date for similar reasons. It found that the list of affected persons sent to a voluntary lawyers’ association with whom none of the listed defendants had any legal relationship, rather than to the parties themselves, was insufficient notice to them, particularly since it was extremely unlikely that any court-appointed criminal or traffic lawyer in D.C. Superior Court would likely appear in the role of counsel for a large group of civil plaintiffs. Accordingly, the Court found that the consolidated Plaintiffs were not placed on notice of their potential claims against the District by either of the District’s announcements. (3) District’s Actual Notice. In any event, the Plaintiffs argued, the District had already received actual notice of potential claims, based on two facts, i.e., its own reports of the inaccurate machines, and its letter to most of the persons potentially affected thereby, pointing out that Section 12-309 itself provides that “a report in writing by the Metropolitan Police Department, in regular course of duty, is a sufficient notice under this section.” (a) The Court found, however, that the report itself did not go into sufficient detail to provide the District with the time, date, and place of the injury to each Plaintiff in the instant case, ruling that “the fact that the District investigated the incident[s] … is irrelevant to the question of whether … [it received] notice in writing within the meaning of § 12-309.” (b) Both sides cited the District’s letter to most of the affected parties, the District arguing that it provided actionable notice to them and the Plaintiffs arguing that it was sufficient endemic Section 12-309 notice to the District itself. Since, however, the District bears the burden of demonstrating that the consolidated Plaintiffs did not timely provide notice, and the Court could not determine with certainty from this record that the Plaintiffs were put on notice by the District’s letter of notification, its rulings fell into different categories. (i) Since four of the Plaintiffs had filed their respective federal actions in June 2010, the Court found that they necessarily were aware of their injury before that date. Based on the bar on claim-splitting, however, the issue of their notice was moot because they were precluded from filing their suits in the instant case. (ii) As to four other Plaintiffs, the District admitted that it had not included their names in the individual mailings that it had sent out and therefore, the Court found, their filings were not untimely. (iii) Because the District provided no information regarding the date upon which three other Plaintiffs were provided with information regarding their injury, the Court found that it had not met its burden in demonstrating that they had failed to give Section 12-309 notice. (iv) Although the District provided evidence that it had mailed notice of the potential injury to one other Plaintiff, it did not supply any evidence that he had actually received the letter and the Court therefore ruled that the parties were entitled to further discovery on the issue. In sum, the Court found “that the District has not justified the dismissal of any of the consolidated Plaintiffs’ Complaints based on their purported failure to provide notice of claim pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-309 at this phase of the litigation.” (E) Negligent Investigation. The District’s approach to this aspect of the consolidated Plaintiffs’ complaint was to ascribe it this denomination and then urge the Court to find that no such cause of action exists and to dismiss it as a matter of public policy. The Court found this argument to be “unavailing.” It noted that the pertinent statute specifically states that the results of a breathalyzer test are inadmissible unless they had been certified by a custodial witness as having been produced by a BAC machine which had been properly and timely calibrated. Although the Court acknowledged that it was good public policy to hold the District and is police officers immune from civil suits, it concluded that this principle was inapplicable to these circumstances. It found that none of the Plaintiffs had pled negligence regarding any kind of “investigation,” but had advanced on the allegations of a failure to properly calibrate the Intoxilyzer machine prior to administering its testing process to each of them and the District’s negligent or intentional failure to disclose that information to them. Accordingly, it denied the District’s motion on this contention. (F) False Imprisonment. Two the Plaintiffs filed allegations of unjust conviction and false imprisonment based upon their sentences of incarceration following their DWI convictions based on invalid evidence. The pertinent DC statute allowing suit for unjust conviction requires that a plaintiff show that (1) the conviction has been reversed or set aside on the ground that s/he is not guilty of the offense on which s/he was convicted, or, after a new trial, was found not guilty thereof, and (2) based on clear and convincing evidence that s/he did not commit any of the acts charged in connection with said offense. The District asserted that neither of these Plaintiffs met these standards. Although one of the Plaintiffs had been convicted of DWI, he was never imprisoned for the offense but sentenced to 45 days suspended and a year of unsupervised oblation, plus three days of community service. Moreover, the District contended, he could not assert that his conviction had been reversed or otherwise set aside on the ground that he was not guilty. The other Plaintiff was convicted of the offenses of DWI, Driving Under the Influence (DUI), and Operating While Impaired (OWI), and sentenced to consecutive terms of 90 days, with 70 days suspended, on the DWI charge, 30 days suspended on the DUI charge, and another 30 day suspended sentence on the OWI charge. Although in June 2010, the District filed its own motion to “review” this Plaintiff’s conviction, which resulted in the Court’s dismissing the DWI charge, it argued in this case that the dismissal did not constitute a reversal or formal setting aside of the convictions so as to establish grounds for the count of unjust conviction/false imprisonment. The Court agreed, finding that the record does not support any certification for the reversal or other adjudication of not guilty for the offense on which this Plaintiff had been convicted. Finally, the Court noted, his claim was subject to dismissal based on the Gilles-based proscription against claim-splitting. (G) Conclusions. The District’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint was granted in part and denied in part.

  • ABUSIVE OR RETALIATORY DISCHARGE / PUBLIC POLICY GROUNDS / APPLICABILITY TO NON-AT-WILL EMPLOYEES / ELEMENTS PRE-EMPTION / NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT / CLAIMS INDEPENDENT OF COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT / COMPENSATORY AND PUNITIVE DAMAGES

     

     

    Précis: Although at-will employees can be terminated at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all, this prerogative is subject to a “public policy exception,” under which such an employee may sue for “abusive discharge” when the sole reason is for the employee’s refusal to violate the law, as expressed in a statute or municipal regulation. Such a cause of action must be solidly based on a statute or regulation that reflects the particular public policy to be applied, or a constitutional provision concretely applicable to the defendant’s conduct. It therefore leaves open the door for a court to recognize numerous public policy exceptions, if the circumstances warrant such recognition. Nevertheless, controlling case law requires that a court should consider seriously only those arguments that reflect a clear mandate of public policy – i.e., those that make a clear showing, based on some identifiable policy that is been “officially declared” and there must also be a “close fit” between the recognize policy and the alleged wrongful conduct at issue in the termination. The duty giving rise to the tort of abusive discharge is not derived from the covenants of the contract, but rather from the employer’s obligation to conduct its affairs in conformity with fundamental public policy in order to foster the public interest in deterring particularly reprehensible conduct in employment matters. The tort of abusive discharge in violation of public policy is therefore available for both at-will and contract employees. Conduct that imperils the health and safety of residents of mental health homes and retirement homes, who, as a group, are particularly vulnerable to abuse, is obviously contrary to the public policy of this jurisdiction. An abusive dismissal cause of action is not limited to a “Hobson’s choice” between following an employer’s directive to violate the law or being discharged. Circumstances other than an employee’s outright refusal to violate a law may also constitute grounds for a public policy exception, if solidly based on a statute or regulation that reflects a particular public policy to be applied. Such an exception is permissible if it is based on a “close fit” between the policy declared and the conduct at issue in the allegedly wrongful termination. The pertinent section of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization must be brought in any U.S. District Court. In such cases, federal labor law must be applied in order to ensure uniform interpretation of collective-bargaining agreements (CBAs). Accordingly, in cases involving CBAs, state laws purporting to define the meaning or scope of a term in a contract are pre-empted by federal labor law. Thus, Judges are permitted to address questions of state law involving labor-management relations only if such questions do not require construing CBAs. At the same time, however, a court still must look at the terms of a CBA in order to determine whether it is pre-empted. Although a CBA may contain a “just cause” provision for termination of employees, it will not induce pre-emption in a case for retaliatory discharge and a plaintiff need only prove that retaliation was a motivating factor for termination, not the sole reason. It is possible that a state claim could arise which would be supplemental and that no possibility would exist that the federal labor-contract scheme established by the NLRA would be frustrated. Thus, even if all the appropriate CBA layoff procedures were followed and there was no breach thereof, if the layoff procedures were utilized solely as a pretext to discharge the employee because s/he made certain allegations as to violation of public policy, neither pre-emption nor the requirement of the exhaustion of administrative remedies would apply. The doctrine of pre-emption merely ensures that federal law will be the basis for interpreting collective-bargaining agreements, and says nothing about the substantive rights a state may provide workers when adjudication of those rights does not depend upon the interpretation of CBAs. The “sole reason” and “just cause” bases for termination are not mutually exclusive because, even if an employer had “just cause” to terminate an employee pursuant to a CBA, the employee could still sue on the theory that the asserted reason for termination was utilized solely as a pretext for discharge because of voiced complaints about the employer’s conduct. Thus, it does not matter whether the employer’s motivations qualified as “just cause” for termination; all that matters for the inquiry into firing is whether the sole reason was or was not retaliation in violation of public policy. At the summary judgment stage, a plaintiff is not required to show a calculated specific amount of damages, but is only required to state a claim for damages which are not “speculative.” That standard affects only the fact of damages, not the amount thereof. Because abusive discharge is an intentional tort, it allows for the full range of remedies to discourage employers from such conduct, including punitive damages, subject to the standard of proof for such a claim.

     

    Abstract: In a highly esoteric Memorandum Opinion, the Trial Court in this case parsed through arcane issues of federal labor law, collective bargaining law, local tort law, public policy law, and abstruse permutations emanating from all these fields, before coming to a conclusion on an issue of first impression in this jurisdiction in holding that a contract union employee governed by a collective bargaining agreement still has an independent cause of action for “abusive discharge” for refusing to violate the public policy of the District of Columbia. Background Facts: This case involves two women who worked as “Support Associates,” aiding mentally and developmentally retarded residents at group homes owned by the Defendant company, which had contracts for those services with the D.C. Government. Plaintiff A worked at Home X and Plaintiff B at Home Z.  Each belonged to a union with a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the Defendant. Their cases have a common denominator with similar factual backgrounds, as follows: (A) Plaintiff A worked at Home X from March 2003 to April 2004, during which she complained to her superiors, as well as to members of the City Council, and appropriate other Government officials, about what she deemed sub-standard conditions and resident neglect there. She alleges that she subsequently became the target of abusive treatment by a male co-worker and, through her union, requested that the employer deal with the situation.  The upshot was that they were both removed from Home X and directed to seek employment at one of the Defendant’s other facilities. He was immediately re-situated but she was not. She alleges that this negative result was due to her reports about the Defendant’s conduct. (B) Plaintiff B was employed at Home Z from January 1998 until March 2004, during which she also complained to her supervisors, the City Council and other government officials about poor conditions at that facility as well. In December 2003, the Defendant accused her of having fabricated her time and attendance records, allegations which she denied. She was discharged for that reason, although she, too, attributes her termination to her complaints about the Defendant’s treatment of residents. (C) In June 2004, they filed a joint complaint in Superior Court, seeking compensatory and punitive damages. It was assigned to a previous Judge who was presiding over a similar case involving the same issues and the same Defendant, which had been filed by Plaintiff C, also a union employee thereof. Subsequently, the Defendant filed a motion to compel enforcement under the CBA, to dismiss the case, and for summary judgment as to all three Plaintiffs, arguing that their claims were pre-empted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA); that they had failed to exhaust their grievance and arbitration remedies pursuant to the CBA; and that they had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Procedural Background: In May 2005, that Judge granted summary judgment against all three Plaintiffs. They filed appeals, which were consolidated, and the Appellate Court vacated the summary judgment as to Plaintiffs A and B only, affirming the judgment against Plaintiff C. The Court remanded Plaintiffs’ in case for “further consideration and explication of whether interpretation of the CBA is required for resolution of their claims,” with specific instructions to the Trial Court to “make the necessary determination and consider, in light of the principles enunciated in … [its] opinion, whether … [A and B] must exhaust administrative remedies before proceeding.” The case on the remand was certified to the calendar of the Superior Court judge who issued the instant Memorandum Opinion. The Defendant again moved for summary judgment and, after some procedural rulings, the issues became ripe for adjudication. The main issues surviving were the following: (1) Plaintiff’s arguments that their respective terminations were retaliatory and “abusive discharge” in violation of the District’s public policy that employees must not be adversely treated because of their refusal to violate pertinent law at the behest of their employer. (2) The Defendant’s arguments that (a) the Plaintiffs’ cause of action applies only to at-will employees; (b) they failed to state a viable claim for abusive discharge because they were not forced specifically to violate a public policy; (c) their claims are pre-empted by federal law that requires an interpretation of the CBA; (d) they had not exhausted their administrative remedies under the CBA; and (e) they could not prove that they had suffered damages for lost wages, medical bills, pain and suffering, or punitive damages. Rulings: the Trial Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Public Policy Claim. Although at-will employees can be terminated “at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all,” this prerogative is subject to a “public policy exception,” under which such an employee may sue for wrongful discharge “when the sole reason… is for the employee’s refusal to violate the law, as expressed in a statute or municipal regulation.” Inasmuch as the predicate for such a cause of action “must be solidly based on a statute or regulation that reflects the particular public policy to be applied, or … a constitutional provision concretely applicable to the defendant’s conduct,” it leaves open the door for a court to recognize numerous “public policy exceptions if the circumstances warrant such recognition.” Nevertheless, controlling case law requires that a court “should consider seriously only those arguments that reflect a clear mandate of public policy – i.e., those that make a clear showing, based on some identifiable policy that is been ‘officially declared’” and “there must be a ‘close fit’ between the recognize policy and the alleged wrongful conduct at issue in the termination.” To emphasize: this historic precedent applied only to at-will employees, which was not the status of the Plaintiffs herein. At the time of the initial appeal of this case, the Court of Appeals had not decided whether the tort of abusive discharge was available to non-at-will (contract) employees, and particularly whether it applied to those covered by a CBA; rather, as noted above, the Appellate Court remanded with instructions to consider whether an interpretation of the CBA was necessary and whether it was required that administrative remedies first be exhausted. Thus, on remand, the Defendant argued that this public policy exception was not available the Plaintiffs, who were subject to a CBA. Even if it were, Defendants argued, Plaintiffs could not show (1) a clearly defined public policy; (2) the required “close fit” between such a policy and their termination; (3) any outright refusal to violate the public policy; or (4) that refusal was the sole reason for termination. The Defendant therefore pressed for summary judgment. To the contrary, Plaintiffs argued, the public policy protection should not be limited to at-will employees “because to do so would frustrate the purpose of the tort claim.” The Trial Court found that the Defendant’s contention “relies on a misreading” of the applicable case law which, it ruled, “does not … restrict this Court From application of existing public policy exceptions to non-at-will employees.” Accordingly, it ruled, that the Defendant is not entitled to summary judgment “at this time.” (B) Application to Contract Employees. Specifically considering the “divergent interpretations” as to whether the public policy cause of action is available to contract employees, the Trial Court noted that the Court of Appeals had ruled in the controlling case on the subject that “the duty giving rise to the tort remedy [of abusive discharge] is not derived from the covenants of the contract, but rather from the employer’s obligation to conduct its affairs in conformity with fundamental public policy .… [in order to] foster the … [public] interest in deterring particularly reprehensible conduct” in employment matters. Acknowledging that the Court of Appeals did not specifically determine that this cause of action applies to contract employees, the Trial Court noted that a recent decision by the U.S. District Court here explicitly held that “the tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy is available for both at-will and contract employees.” The Trial Court therefore expressly adopted this principle in so ruling herein. (C) Elements. The Plaintiffs provided the Court with examples of numerous local statutes, regulations, and policies designed to protect residents of mental health homes, pursuant to which, they asserted, there “an inherent public policy that employees servicing this ‘vulnerable population’ were able to discuss concerns with regulators and inspectors without fear of retaliation.” These authorities, they contended, “indicated a clear public policy to ensure the care, comfort, and safety of … [such] residents and for otherwise ensuring that regulatory officials have unfettered access to information necessary to determine compliance with the law and regulations by which they are governed.” The Trial Court noted that the Court of Appeals, in a companion ruling to the controlling case on this issue, had ruled that “[c]onduct that imperils the health and safety of the … residents of a … [similarly situated] retirement home, who, as a group, are particularly vulnerable to the kind of [mal]practice here alleged, is obviously contrary to the public policy of this jurisdiction.” To the Defendant’s argument that an employer must explicitly confront an employee with a “Hobson’s choice” to either violate the law or be terminated, the Trial Court ruled that an abusive dismissal cause of action is not limited to such a situation. Just as it had ruled that the exception was not limited to at-will employees, the Court also ruled that it was not limited to discharge “for having outrightly refused to violate the law.” In support of this ruling, it cited a 1999 opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for this Circuit, which ruled that “circumstances other than an employee’s outright refusal to violate a law constitute grounds for a public policy exception, if solidly based on a statute or regulation that reflects a particular public policy to be applied.” Similarly, our Court of Appeals ruled that such an expansion is permissible if it is based on “a close fit between the policy … declared and the conduct at issue in the allegedly wrongful termination.” (D) As Applied. The Trial Court therefore concluded that ample precedent existed for it to find that the Plaintiffs had established “a clearly defined public policy” of ensuring the health, safety, and care of the mentally handicapped residents at issue in such cases, embodied in local statutes and regulations which govern their treatment, and had also demonstrated “a close fit between the policy and Plaintiff’s termination.” Again, the Court ruled that summary judgment against the Plaintiffs was therefore not appropriate. (E) Federal Pre-emption. The pertinent section of the NLRA provides that suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization must be brought in any U.S. District Court, but ensuing case law requires that federal labor law must be applied in order to ensure uniform interpretation of CBAs. Accordingly, in cases involving CBAs, state laws purporting “to define the meaning or scope of a term in a contract suit are pre-empted by federal labor law.” Thus, Judges are permitted to address questions of state law involving labor-management relations only if such questions do not require construing CBAs. Put another way, if the state law claim does not require interpretation of the CBA, it is independent of it and is not pre-empted by the NLRA; otherwise it is pre-empted thereby. At the same time, however, a court still must look at the terms of a CBA in order to determine whether it is pre-empted. In this case, that consideration involved a determination of whether a claim for abusive discharge is completely independent of the CBA. That tort requires proof of an additional element, i.e., that the employer’s sole reason for discharging the employee was one that violates a clear mandate of public policy. The Defendant emphasized the qualifying term “sole” and that a CBA allows of a “just” reason for same. In opposition, the Plaintiffs argued that pre-emption is irrelevant here because their claims deal only with the Defendant’s “true motivation” for terminating them – an assessment which does not require the Court to interpret the CBA at all. The Trial Court found that this issue, too, has not been addressed by the Court of Appeals, although it pointed out that other courts have held that a “just cause” provision “will not induce federal pre-emption in a case for retaliatory discharge” and that typically “a plaintiff need only prove that retaliation was a motivating factor for termination, not the sole reason.” The Court relied in particular on holdings from the Maryland Court of Appeals involving unionized employees, holding that questions of whether the discharge was for “good cause” must be resolved via the CBA. Those cases, however, also held that this principle does not mean that an independent action under state law may never follow. It is possible that a state claim could arise which “would be supplemental, and [that] no possibility would exist that the federal labor-contract scheme established by … [the NLRA] would be frustrated.” Thus, “[e]ven if all the appropriate CBA layoff procedures were followed and there was no breach [there]of …, if the layoff procedures … were utilized solely as a pretext to discharge … [the employee] because he … [made certain] claims,” neither pre-emption nor the requirement of the exhaustion of administrative remedies would apply, the persuasive authority ruled. The Maryland Court similarly ruled that “pre-emption merely ensures that federal law will be the basis for interpreting collective-bargaining agreements, and says nothing about the substantive rights a State may provide workers when adjudication of those rights does not depend upon the interpretation of such agreements.” The Trial Court in the instant case, found this question to be an “extremely close” one, but found that the “sole reason” and “just cause” bases for termination “are not mutually exclusive” because, based on the foregoing persuasive authority, even if an employer had “just cause” to terminate an employee pursuant to a CBA, the employee could still sue on the theory that the asserted reason for termination “was utilized solely as a pretext to discharge plaintiffs because they voiced complaints” about the defendant’s conduct. Put another way, the Trial Court ruled, “the defense that the firing was for ‘just cause’ does not automatically trigger pre-emption” and “Plaintiffs need not demonstrate the termination was without ‘just cause’ [in order] to satisfy their burden to prove … that the sole reason for the termination was retaliation [essentially] for whistleblowing.” In the end, the Court concluded “that it does not matter whether … [the Defendant]’s motivations qualified as ‘just cause’ for termination; all that matters for the inquiry into firing is whether the sole reason was or was not retaliation,” the affirmative burden of proof for which would lie with the Plaintiffs. Accordingly, the Trial Court once again concluded that summary judgment was not appropriate, this time on pre-emption grounds, because the issue of whether Plaintiffs are able to support a case for abusive discharge, including whether the sole reason was retaliation, remains a factual inquiry which must be addressed at trial. (F) Exhaustion of Remedies. Because the Court had already held that the Plaintiffs have a cause of action independent of the CBA, it also ruled that there was no requirement to exhaust administrative remedies thereunder. (G) Damages. The Court also ruled on the recoverability of the two general types of damages as follows: (1) Compensatory. Both Plaintiffs were out of work for long periods of time. Plaintiff A also experienced physical and psychological symptoms and endured two years of homelessness.  Plaintiff B was unemployed for six months and suffered with depression after her discharge.  At the summary judgment stage, a plaintiff is not required to show a calculated specific amount of damages, but is only required to state a claim for damages which are not “speculative.” That standard affects only the fact of damages, not the amount thereof. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-movant at the summary judgment stage, the Court ruled that the Plaintiffs had validly pled compensatory damages and also denied the Defendant’s motion on this score. (2) Punitive. Whether a plaintiff may assert punitive damages is a third issue in this case on which the Court of Appeals has not directly ruled.  At the same time, though, that Court has ruled that (a) abusive discharge is an intentional tort and (b) that punitive damages may be claimed in such cases.  Relying on a 1991 Court of Appeals case which ruled that “because the goal of the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine is to further an officially declared public policy, the law should allow for a full range of remedies to discourage employers from such conduct,” the Trial Court reasoned that punitive damages are clearly within that range. The only remaining issue – which remained to be developed in the ongoing case – was whether the Defendant’s conduct amounted to “outrageous or egregious wrongdoing … [stemming from an] evil motive, actual malice, or … willful disregard for the rights of” the Plaintiffs. The Trial Court therefore concluded that “at this stage” of the case, under the pertinent standard, summary judgment on the punitive damages claim was likewise “not warranted.” (H) Conclusions.  The Court of Appeals directed the Trial Judge in this case to make three very difficult and unprecedented decisions and she did so in a thorough and scholarly manner.  They were: (1) A cause of action for abusive discharge in violation of public policy is available for both at-will and contract employees. (2) Even if an employer had just cause to terminate an employee pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, the employee may still sue on the theory that the asserted reason for termination was utilized solely as a pretext because the employee had voiced complaints about the employer’s conduct in violation of public policy. (3) Such a case comprehends the full range of potential remedies and a plaintiff may assert punitive damages, subject to the standard requirements for proving same.

  • TORT LAW

    STRICT LIABILITY / NEGLIGENCE / BREACH OF IMPLIED WARRANTY OF MERCHANTABILITY UNDER U.C.C.

     

     

    Précis: The main purpose of the D.C. Water and Sewage Authority is to deliver potable water to the citizens of the District of Columbia for purposes of drinking, cooking, and bathing. Neither its original mandate nor that imposed on it by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act imposes any further obligation with regard to the effect of the water on pipes in residential or other buildings. A negligence claim requires a plaintiff to prove the usual tri-partite elements: (1) an applicable standard of care; (2) a breach thereof; and (3) a causal relationship between that breach and said injuries. A strict liability claim must show by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the seller was engaged in the business of selling the product that caused the harm; (2) the product was sold in a defective condition which was “unreasonably dangerous” to the consumer user; (3) the product was one which the seller expected to, and did, reach the plaintiff consumer or user without any a substantial change from the condition in which it was sold; and (4) the defect was a direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. In turn, a product may be found to be defective if it has one of the following three shortcomings: (a) a manufacturing defect; (b) an absence of sufficient warnings or instructions; or (c) an unsafe design. A product is “unreasonably dangerous” when it is “dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” Generally speaking, therefore, “a product is not in a defective condition when it is safe for normal handling and consumption.” A breach of the implied warranty of merchantability under the U.C.C. requires the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the defendant was a merchant dealing in the goods in question; (2) the goods did not conform to the merchantability factors listed in the Code; and (3) the product lacked the fitness which caused the plaintiff’s injuries. 

     

    Abstract: After a 10-year fight with the District’s Water and Sewer Authority, through three Trial Judges and a previous appeal, the Plaintiff in this case was adjudged to have failed to show a nexus between the chemical, metal, and bacterial content of the District’s water supply and the alleged corrosion and resulting leakage damage in several multi-unit apartment complexes that he owned in the City. Facts: The factual and trial backgrounds to this case are as follows: (A) The Problem. From 1983 to 1993, through three limited partnerships, Plaintiff acquired ownership of four multi-unit apartment buildings, Property A on 19th Street (built c. 1911), Property B on 13th Street (built c. 1946), Property C on Ontario Road (built c. 1925), and Property D on Emerson Street (built c. 1965), all in the Northwest quadrant of the District. Each property was fully occupied at the time of trial, except for Property C, which was vacant. The duty of the agency responsible for delivering water to the residents of the District of Columbia, the D.C. Water and Sewage Authority (WASA), is to provide “potable water” for purposes of “drinking, cooking, and bathing.” WASA does not acquire or treat the water itself, but contracts as a wholesale purchaser for treated water from the Washington Aqueduct System (WAS), owned, operated, and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which filters approximately 180 million gallons of water per day from the Potomac River to create “finished water” after it has been through two filtration systems. After it chemically treats the water and controls its pH level, it provides it to WASA through a 1,300-mile network of transmission lines, pump stations, water mains, storage tanks, and fire hydrants throughout the City. WASA is only responsible for the pipes that lead directly up to, but not into, buildings. Starting in 2000, the Plaintiff noticed various “pinhole leaks” in the copper pipes in some of his rental units and began attempting to discover the source of the problem. He retained the services of a civil and environmental engineer, (the Engineer), who had previously been a consultant to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which is responsible for providing drinking water to residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. In that capacity, he reported that the increased water pipe leaks in those areas were pinhole leaks caused by high levels of chlorine and aluminum in the water clustering in various spots on interior walls of the pipe causing a process known as “pitting.” His investigation of Plaintiff properties reported that the leaks in those buildings were due to elevated levels of aluminum, chlorine, and a high pH level. In addition, he found that, because WASA’s distribution system was very old, the majority of the pipes were “unlined” which allowed high concentrations of bacteria to grow on their interior surfaces, contributing to the pitting. In 2000, the same year that the Plaintiff started to experience the leaking pipes in his rental units, WASA switched from using chlorine to using chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, resulting in a higher lead content. This led Plaintiff’s Engineer to conclude that “the vast majority” of copper pitting damage and pinhole leaks are caused by the chemical makeup of the water provided by WASA. The only effective solution to the problem, he opined, was to completely re-plumb all of the buildings, although, he conceded that “all… pipe systems can fail… in different ways.” Plaintiff also retained an expert with 50 years’ experience in construction costs who, after examining drawings, conducting in-person inspections, and taking measurements of the buildings, estimated that the total costs for entire pipe replacements would be nearly $4.5 million and, overall, would take more than a year. (B) The Trial. In 2003, the Plaintiff filed suit against WASA on theories of negligence, strict liability, and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability under the U.C.C., seeking damages in the amount of $5 million dollars. At the ensuing bench trial, the Plaintiff presented the foregoing evidence and expert opinions, together with his own testimony regarding the history of these problems. Like his Engineer, the Plaintiff acknowledged “that no piping, whether it was galvanized steel, copper, or plastic, would last forever because, eventually, all pipes have to be replaced.” In its defense, WASA presented eight witnesses, including three expert witnesses. Their testimony is summarized, by category, as follows: (1) Expert Witnesses. (a) Dr. A, an expert on municipal water management and quality, specifically on compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), testified that both WASA and the WAS, which supplied it water, were “heavily regulated” by the EPA. The purpose of the SDWA, he testified, is “to safeguard water for human consumption,” and to that and, the EPA sets standards for the amount of chemicals and bacteria permissible therein. He also reported that in 2004, WASA tested the water at the Plaintiff’s properties and found that the pH and aluminum levels “were consistent with EPA-regulated levels.” (b) Dr. B, an expert in the fields of plumbing, corrosion, water treatment and chemistry, materials performance, failure analysis, and the standard of care for water utility distribution systems, testified that the SDWA and related statutes, were implemented “to address corrosion concerns … [in order] to protect public health, not plumbing.” The related statutory “Lead and Copper Rule,” he testified, was intended to measure the release of copper and lead particles into drinking water and requires corrective measures in the event that certain high levels are detected. He further stated that the WAS, the source of WASA’s supply, “produces high-quality water and uses an effective corrosion control program,” resulting in “remarkably low levels of copper release in residential plumbing across the District.” He reported that neither chlorine nor chloramine levels, as generally used by American water utilities, causes copper pitting and has ever been documented to cause pinhole leaks. In addition, significantly, he testified that, although the American Water Works Association is the recognized industry group for larger water utilities, “there is no single consensus in the scientific community on a water chemistry standard to prevent pinhole leaks because, among other reasons, we know there are certain conditions that create pitting regardless of the water chemistry,” including crevice corrosion, galvanic corrosion, poor workmanship, sediments from hot water heaters, and high concentrations of bacteria. Finally, Dr. B testified that in 2009, in response to Plaintiff’s complaints, WASA Inspectors visited his properties, but that Plaintiff could not point to any specific location where there had been leaks. Although three leaks were discovered in hot water lines on that visit, none was identified as a pinhole leak. Dr. B personally examined the pipes in these properties and found them to be “very old,” including some galvanized iron pipes and copper tubing dating back to the 1940s. Obviously, he pointed out, “older pipes are far more likely to develop concentration [of bacteria and metal] cells because the older plumbing materials have carried water for decades.” His opinion was that “it took 40-50 years to get to that point.” (c) Mr. C, a defense expert on building construction and repair, estimated the cost for replacing all the pipes in the Plaintiff’s buildings would be approximately $2.7 million and would take anywhere from 14 to 22 weeks for each building, in contrast to the Plaintiff’s Estimate of approximately $4.5 million. (2) Lay Witnesses. WASA’s remaining witnesses were the following: (a) The principal scientist from the WSSC water authority in Maryland for which Plaintiff’s Engineer had consulted, testified that it did not respond to complaints for pinhole leaks, other than giving customers General Information about the problem. (b) The former Director of Utilities for the City of Falls Church, Virginia, which is also a user of WAS water, reported that out of approximately 34,000 customers in that city during his tenure, he had received only proximately 25 pinhole leak complaints. (c) Similarly, the Chief Operating Engineer for the water system in Arlington County Virginia, also a user of WAS water, found that during the period at issue, he had “found little indication of a pinhole leak problem.” (d) WASA subpoenaed the co-managers of Plaintiff’s Property D who both testified that there were no leaks in their building and that the drinking water was not damaging the pipes there.  Rulings: The Court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law on the issues presented as follows: (A) WASA Responsibility. The Court found that WASA’s purpose “is to sell and transport potable water for drinking, cooking, and bathing to its customers in the District of Columbia.” Based on the “substantial evidence” that the chemical makeup of the water supplied by WASA “complied with all applicable federal statutes” to that end and that there was no argument that the water was defective or otherwise unsuitable for its intended purpose, the Court ruled that WASA had no causal responsibility for plumbing defects in the Plaintiff’s properties. (B) Property D. In view of the fact that both property managers at this housing unit testified that there were no leaks and no complaints there, the Court quickly rejected all the Plaintiff’s claims with regard thereto. (C) Remaining Properties. The Court found that the Plaintiff had produced evidence of pinhole leaks in the copper pipes in the three remaining properties. On a negligence claim therefor, he was obligated to prove the usual tri-partite elements: (1) an applicable standard of care; (2) a breach thereof; and (3) a causal relationship between that breach and said injuries. The Court found that the Plaintiff had failed to do so for the following reasons: (a) Plaintiff’s own expert admitted that “there is no particularized standard of care that the utility must adhere to in order to prevent pinhole leaks from developing and copper plumbing.” (b) Collaterally, it was evident that the relevant federal statutes “are directed at providing safe, drinkable water, and do not regulate pinhole leaks caused by corrosion.” (c) Even if a national standard of care had been established, the Plaintiff presented “no evidence that Defendant breached any standard of care for a water facility,” even though WASA is “highly regulated by the EPA.” (d) Consequently, Plaintiffs had failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that WASA actions had caused the pinhole leaks in the properties at issues. (e) Finally, the Court ruled that Plaintiff could not meet his burden with respect to future damages in the pipes because he could not show that such damages were “reasonably certain” to occur. Up to this point, the evidence showed that there had been “only a minimal number of leaks in the properties,” that there was no way to know if and when a building will experience pinhole leaks, and that, even if the pipes were totally replaced in all the buildings, there was “no guarantee that the new pipes wouldn’t leak at some point, too.” (D)  Strict Liability. A complaint on this theory must show by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the seller was engaged in the business of selling the product that caused the harm; (2) the product was sold in a defective condition which was “unreasonably dangerous” to the consumer user; (3) the product was one which the seller expected to, and did, reach the plaintiff consumer or user without any a substantial change from the condition in which it was sold; and (4) the defect was a direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. In turn, a product may be found to be defective if it has one of the following three shortcomings: (a) a manufacturing defect; (b) an absence of sufficient warnings or instructions; or (c) an unsafe design. A product is “unreasonably dangerous” when it is “dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” Generally speaking, therefore, “a product is not in a defective condition when it is safe for normal handling and consumption.” Here, the Court found that the “overwhelming nature” of the evidence at trial “was that water sold by … WASA … [is] safe for its intended ordinary purpose,” which is for human consumption. Since it was not found to be “unreasonably dangerous,” therefore, the Court ruled “that Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden on the issue of strict liability,” as well. (E) Warranty of Merchantability. A successful U.C.C. Claim on this issue requires the Plaintiff herein to have proven by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) WASA was a merchant dealing in the goods in question; (2) the goods did not conform to the merchantability factors listed in the Code; and (3) the product lacked the fitness which caused the Plaintiff’s injuries. The Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the content of the product provided by WASA violated its implicit “agreement to deliver water … in a way that would not damage” the properties at issue. Once again, the Court found that this argument “misses the larger picture regarding the merchantability of water,” the primary purpose of which was to provide water that was “safe for drinking, cooking, and bathing .… not to keep Plaintiffs’ pipes from corroding.” In conclusion, the Court found “that all types of pipes, including galvanized steel copper, or plastic, course experience leaks from water, which is a naturally corrosive substance,” but that the Plaintiffs had “not met their burden to show that … WASA improperly packaged the water when it sold and distributed … [it] through its pipe system.” (F) Conclusions. Accordingly, the Court’s judgment was in favor of the Defendant on the grounds that the Plaintiffs had not proven negligence, strict liability, or violation of the implied warranty of merchantability.

  • FAMILY LAW

    PETITIONS FOR PATERNITY AND SUPPORT / REQUIREMENTS THEREOF

     

     

    Précis: The D.C. paternity and support statute requires that every custodial parent who applies to the District of Columbia for public assistance benefits on behalf of a child, assign to the District any rights the parent has to collect support for the child from any other person, including the biological father. A petition to determine paternity must include, inter alia: (1) the approximate date of conception of each child; (2) a short and plain statement of the District’s entitlement to the relief sought; and (3) notice of any other cases based on, or including the same claim or subject matter, or a statement that no such cases exist. Once a petition has been filed, the Clerk of the Family Court must issue a Notice of Hearing and Order Directing Appearance (NOHODA). Each NOHODA must be served upon each respondent space in order “to ensure that respondents in paternity and support cases received clear and straightforward notice of the allegations against him.” Failure to do so subjects the petition to involuntary dismissal pursuant to Rule 41(b). If appeal is sought from any final judgment or order of a Superior Court Magistrate Judge, the decision must first be reviewed by an Associate Judge of the Court; that ruling becomes a final order of the Superior Court, subject to appeal to the Court of Appeals. An Associate Judge of the Superior Court reviewing a Magistrate Judge’s final decision applies the same standard of review used by the Court of Appeals on review of a judgment or other order of the Superior Court. Accordingly, a Magistrate Judge’s decision “may not be set aside except for errors of law, unless it appears that the judgment or order is plainly wrong, without evidence to support it, or an abuse of discretion.”

     

    Abstract: Comporting with the threshold elements of adequate notice and meaningful opportunity to be heard as to the allegations contained in a petition or complaint, pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, a Magistrate Judge’s ruling that paternity and support petitions filed in the D.C. Family Court did not meet those standards, in that they failed to include vital factors of notice, was affirmed by a Reviewing Judge of the Superior Court. Facts. Pursuant to D.C. paternity and support statute, which requires that every custodial parent who applies to the District of Columbia for public assistance benefits on behalf of a child assign to the District any rights the parent has to collect support for the child from any other person, including the biological father, the District commenced paternity proceedings against each of the 14 Respondents in this case. Each petition alleged that the Respondent is the “putative father” of the child(ren) at issue, citing statutory provisions establishing subject matter jurisdiction; the name and date of birth of each child; the type of public assistance the District is providing; the purpose of the action to establish the parentage and support of each child; and the basis for the assertion of personal jurisdiction over each Respondent. These were general assertions and were not accompanied by any specific allegations in the petition. After these filings, the Clerk of the Family Court issued a Notice of Hearing and Order Directing Appearance (NOHODA). Each NOHODA must be served upon each respondent in order to provide adequate notice and meaningful opportunity to be heard under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. These matters are initially assigned to designated Magistrate Judges in the Family Court. Although the District was granted at least one extension to do so, it failed to effect service of process on any of the Respondents herein. It then requested that the Magistrate Judge presiding to place the case and what is called a “relocate status,” which has the effect of holding it in “an informal inactive status” that would give the District additional time to re-bring the case, once the Respondent was located and served with process. The Magistrate Judge, however, found other deficiencies in the petitions as filed. In a written order, he ruled that all had one or more of the following defects: (1) failure to state the approximate date of conception of each child; (2) failure to include a short and plain statement of the District’s entitlement to the relief sought; and (3) failure to identify other cases based on, or including the same claim or subject matter, or to state that no such cases exist. He then sua sponte dismissed all 14 cases, without prejudice, pursuant to Rule 41(b) governing “involuntary dismissals,” but gave the District the option of avoiding dismissal by filing amended petitions within 30 days to cure the defects. The District, however, apparently for policy reasons, declined to cure the petitions as identified by the Judge, and opted instead to seek judicial review of the dismissals before an Associate Judge of the Court. It raised issues as to (a) the basis for the dismissals; (b) the efficacy of stating the birth dates, rather than the approximate dates of conception in the petitions; (c) its entitlement to relief; backspace by virtue of the public assistance statutes cited; and (d) public policy considerations. Noting the similarities and the legal issues presented in these cases, Presiding Judge of the Family Court consolidated them for review and assigned them to the Associate Judge who issued the Memorandum Opinion herein. Because none of the Respondents had even been served at that point, the Associate Judge appointed the D.C. Legal Aid Society as amicus curiae to represent their interests. After full briefing, this opinion issued. Rulings. The Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Standard. If appeal is sought from any final judgment or order of a Superior Court Magistrate Judge, the decision must first be reviewed by an Associate Judge of the Court; that ruling then becomes a final order of the Superior Court, subject to appeal to the Court of Appeals. An Associate Judge of the Superior Court reviewing a Magistrate Judge’s final decision applies the same standard of review used by the Court of Appeals on review of a judgment or other order of the Superior Court. Accordingly, a Magistrate Judge’s decision “may not be set aside except for errors of law unless it appears that the judgment or order is plainly wrong, without evidence to support it, or an abuse of discretion.” Here, the Reviewing Judge discussed each of the adjudicated the effects in the petitions seriatem: (B) Approximate Conception Date. Superior Court Domestic Relations Rule 405(a) requires, in pertinent part, that a paternity petition “set forth … all relevant information concerning the allegations of paternity including … the approximate date of conception (and date and place of birth, if appropriate).” In 13 of the 14 petitions herein, however, the District provides no such dates, although the date of birth for each child was set forth in each petition. The absence of a date of conception is probably due to the fact that the printed form petition for this purpose does not contain a space for this information. The District argued that the “approximate date of conception” is implicit in each stated date of birth, one needing only to “count backwards” over the typical 37-42 week gestation period to obtain the date of conception within the traditional five-week leeway.  But it was just this 12.5% margin that led the Court to reject this rationale, noting that the most recent statistics for live births in the District of Columbia show that an even greater variance, 15.5%, were “pre-term,” occurring earlier than the 37th week of pregnancy. The Court concluded that, inasmuch as most putative fathers defend themselves without counsel in these proceedings, it is only with notice containing accurate information that they are able to make informed decisions about whether and how the challenge the allegations. Few, if any of them, the Court ventured “have ready access to medical encyclopedias or understand that the approximate date of conception can be inferred from the date of birth.” All this aside, the fact remains that Rule 405 expressly requires a statement of the approximate date of conception “to ensure meaningful notice to the respondent.” In short, the Court ruled, “[i]t is not up to a litigant, no matter how powerful, to make a unilateral decision that a requirement of the Court’s rules is superfluous and may be ignored.” Accordingly, the Court ruled that the District must do more than make inferred references by merely “paying lip service to The Magistrate Judge’s concerns” on these required factors. (C) Entitlement to Relief. The Court harkened back to Civil Rule 8(a)(2), which requires that a plaintiff for petitioner must include in a claim “a short and plain statement of the claim, including appropriate facts, showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” In the petitions at issue herein, however, the District checked off boxes in its form submissions identifying certain types of public assistance benefits it provides on behalf of the minor children named therein, but it did not explain “under the pertinent statute how it is entitled to seek support from non-custodial parents.” This, the Court found, was “by no means self-evident, particularly to persons unfamiliar with the child support laws or the functioning of the judicial process.” It therefore concluded that the petitions “failed to provide a reasonably clear statement of the legal theory on which the District claims to be entitled to the relief sought in these cases,” and “thereby violated a fundamental pleading requirement of Rule 8(a). (D) Related Cases. Based on experience, the Court noted that “it is not at all unusual” that one man has fathered children by two or more mothers, either in the District of Columbia or from neighboring jurisdictions, and that each mother may be unaware of the other children. In order to protect the interests of all concerned, including the father, it is therefore important that all paternity cases in which he is, or may become, involved are of record in the Court’s Paternity and Support Branch. Domestic Relations Rule 108(b)(8) likewise plainly requires that this information be included in each petition. Even on review, the Court pointed out, the District provided no explanation for its failure to do so in these cases, and it agreed with the Magistrate Judge that these omissions constitute “material violations” of the Rule. (E) Dismissal. To the dismissal, the District argued that, despite these omissions, it was error for the Magistrate Judge to dismiss the petitions for failure to state a claim, because under a Rule 12(b)(6) rubric, all such petitions and complaints must be construed “in a light most favorable” to the party submitting them and may be dismissed only if it appears “beyond doubt” that the complaining party “can prove no set of facts in support of its claim that would entitle it to relief.” The Reviewing Court found this argument unavailing for three basic reasons: (1) The Magistrate Judge’s dismissal was not under Rule 12(b)(6), but under Rule 41(b), which grants the Court independent authority to dismiss an action sua sponte “for failure of the claimant … to comply with these Rules,” multiple instances of which the Reviewing Court had already found. (2) Even if a Rule 12(b)(6) analysis were to be applied, the Court found that the District had “erroneously relied in its motions on outdated decisions in civil cases that cannot properly be applied to these paternity and support actions.” (3) As already pointed out, D.C. Rules 8, 10, and 405 require that a paternity in support petition is subject quote to certain heightened pleading requirements and must provide greater details of the petitioner’s factual and legal claims than an ordinary civil complaint,” to say nothing of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings under their federal counterparts that require civil complaints “to include well-pleaded factual allegations giving rise to plausible claims of relief,” not simply claims for possible relief. (F) Public Policy. The District argued further that insistence on these particularized inclusions “frustrate the rights of … [D.C.] children to receive support and for District taxpayers to be compensated by the non-custodial parents for at least a portion of the public assistance benefits the District has provided,” in contravention of the public policy of this jurisdiction. The Court disagreed with this argument, acknowledging the importance of its premises, but holding that “a party’s claim does not excuse the parties obligation to comply with the Court’s rules,” which it deemed “vital to the Court’s efforts to advance the fair administration of justice for the residents of our community and, in particular, for the unrepresented persons who make up a large majority of the respondents in such cases.” (G) In Mentionem. The Court noted in passing that none of this “time-consuming” review litigation would have been necessary if the District had simply taken advantage of the opportunity provided by the Magistrate Judge’s dismissal order simply to file amended petitions with the necessary information included. It faulted the “District’s own carelessness and questionable litigation strategy … [as] particularly responsible for the unfortunate delays in the resolution of these important cases on their merits.” (H) Conclusions. The purpose of the Domestic Relations Rule 405 (a) is “to ensure that respondents in paternity and support cases received clear and straightforward notice of the allegations against them.” Moreover, under Rule 108 (b)(8) “[it] it is critical that a Judge charged with deciding such a case know whether the allegations set forth in the petition (or related allegations) have been, or are being, litigated in another case and, if so, the status of the other case and/or its outcome.” The Reviewing Court concluded that, “[t]he Magistrate Judge therefore was fully within his authority and [had] good reason to insist on compliance with the pleading requirements set forth in the rules” and “[b]ecause the defects in the petitions were material, the Magistrate Judge acted well within his discretion in dismissing the petitions without prejudice.”

  • PROSECUTION OF CRIMINAL CONTEMPT ALLEGATIONS / VIOLATION OF CIVIL PROTECTION ORDERS AND TEMPORARY PROTECTION ORDERS

    U.S. ATTORNEY’S OFFICE IS PROPER PROSECUTORIAL AUTHORITY / APPOINTMENT OF PRIVATE COUNSEL, IF DEEMED NECESSARY, IN THE ABSENCE OF DETERMINATION OF THAT OFFICE NOT TO PROSECUTE / GUIDELINES FOR SAME 

     

     

    Précis: In light of a recent decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals in the case of In re John Robertson (2011), which held that the power to prosecute criminal contempt allegations for violations of Civil Protection Orders (CPOs) and Temporary Protective Orders (TPOs) issuing from the Domestic Violence Unit of the Superior Court rests with the Office of the United States Attorney, not with the office of the D.C. Attorney General, the Trial Court in this case set forth guidelines for the appointment of pro bono private counsel to prosecute such allegations in order to vindicate the integrity of the Court’s orders, should the Office of the United States Attorney find it not in the public interest to do so. These include: (1) Consulting with the Office of the United States Attorney as to its view regarding whether prosecution of the contempt is in the public interest. (2) If that Office believes that a particular contempt prosecution does not qualify, it should be heard on that matter and the fact that it takes that position should be given some weight by the Court, although it is not dispositive. (3) Where that Office declines to prosecute, the Court retains its independent authority to appoint a private lawyer as a prosecutor to assess whether it is in the public interest to pursue criminal contempt charges in connection with alleged violations of a CPO. (4) Such appointees would represent the United States, not the party that is the beneficiary of the court order allegedly violated, because such prosecutions are in the public interest by vindicating the Court’s authority, not simply the interests of the individuals involved. (5) Anyone appointed via this process must not have been involved in the case at issue and, beyond that, must not ever have had any prior connection to any interested party. (6) Because no funds currently available under the D.C. Criminal Justice Act (CJA) to compensate any attorney making himself or herself available for such appointments, their service will be on a pro bono basis.

     

    Abstract: In a thoughtful opinion, a D.C. Superior Court Judge attempted to reconcile a recent holding by the Court of Appeals which distinguishes between the prosecutorial interests involved in contempt proceedings stemming from Civil Protection Orders (CPOs) and Temporary Protection Orders TPO’s). Facts: On April 28, 2011, the Petitioner filed a pro se petition for a Civil Protection Order (CPO). The same day the court issued a TPO requiring the Respondent to stay at least 100 feet away from her person, home, workplace, and vehicle, and not to contact her in any manner, either directly or indirectly. By its terms the TPO would remain effective until May 12, 2011, the date of the CPO hearing. Two days after the Respondent had been served, however, on May 3, 2011, the Petitioner filed a pro se motion for criminal contempt, alleging three prohibited telephone communications to her over the previous two days in violation of the TPO. At the scheduled CPO hearing before a Superior Court Judge, an Assistant D.C. Attorney General (AAG) made an appearance “on behalf of” the Petitioner, and private Counsel appeared on behalf of the Respondent. No one from the U.S. Attorney’s Office participated in the hearing. Respondent was arraigned on the criminal contempt allegation and entered a plea of not guilty. A criminal contempt status hearing was set for June 2, 2011. At that hearing, the Respondent filed a motion to dismiss the allegation pursuant to the holding of the Court of Appeals in the Robertson II case (May 2011). The concern before the Trial Court was whether an AAG could serve as both advocate for the Petitioner in the CPO and as Prosecutor of the criminal contempt, a dual role which presented potential conflict of interest issues under the Robertson ruling. Respondent contended that the contempt matter must proceed in the name of the Petitioner personally, inasmuch as it had been filed pro
    se.
    Even if there was a government role in the matter, he further argued, Robertson held that the proper governmental authority for a contempt prosecution was the sovereign, which in this case must be represented by the Office of the U.S. Attorney, not the Office of the D.C. Attorney General. The AAG in attendance denied any conflict of interest and argued that the position of her office was that its attorneys can simultaneously serve both as counsel for petitioners in such matters and as representative of the of the sovereign in connection with the prosecution of a criminal contempt of the jurisdiction’s Trial Court. After further briefing was ordered, the parties and respective counsel appeared on June 7, 2011, for both the criminal contempt status hearing and the CPO trial. The Court held the latter trial first, during which the AAG served as the Petitioner’s Counsel. The Court found good cause for entry of a CPO and referred the still-pending criminal contempt motion to the Judge who ultimately issued this Memorandum Opinion. That Court heard oral argument on the Robertson issue on August 8, 2011, considering the Petitioner’s opposition via the AAG to the Respondent’s motion to dismiss and that Office’s Memorandum of Law on its role in the pending contempt action, as well as the Respondent’s written replies to both these submissions.  Rulings: The Court ruled on the issues presented as follows: (A) Mechanisms. The Intrafamily Offense Act of 2008, provides a mechanism for victims of domestic violence to petition the Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) of the D.C. Superior Court for a CPO to protect them and associated individuals from further criminal acts by a victimizer. It also provides for the issuance of a TPO on an ex parte basis until such time as the respondent appears in court to contest the CPO. The Act is silent as to who may initiate a contempt action if an order is violated, but the Superior Court Rules governing proceedings in the DVU provide that contempt actions may be initiated either by an individual, the Office of the D.C. Attorney General (OAG), or a private attorney appointed by the Court; neither, however, makes any provision as to who may prosecute those charges. In the Robertson case, the Court of Appeals held that prosecution of criminal offenses, including criminal contempt for alleged violations of the orders of the DVU, must “be brought in the name and pursuant to the sovereign power of the United States.” In the instance authorized by the statute, wherein an individual petitioner as filed a motion for criminal contempt, that person may be “assisted” by attorneys from the OAG “so long as the beneficiary’s CPO enforcement action is brought in the name of the United States.” This amalgam of private, governmental, and judicial interests, the Court found, “suggests a range of possible outcomes flowing from Robertson.” This opinion is meant to sort them out and provide guidance for the respective roles in prosecuting such criminal contempt allegations. (B) Competing Options. Two antithetical options emerge from Robertson, the Court found. At one extreme is the Respondent’s position that Robertson requires that henceforth all criminal contempt prosecutions to enforce CPOs must be pursued by the Office of the United States Attorney, as the sole authorized representative of the sovereign. At the other extreme, the OAG argued that Robertson requires only an “essentially ministerial” approach, allowing that Office to prosecute contempt actions “in the name of the United States” as the “substituted … name of the individual petitioner.” (C) The Mean. The Court rejected both positions, finding it “impossible to believe” that the Robertson Court intended a wholesale repudiation of precedent in these matters, particularly inasmuch as one panel of the Court of Appeals may not overrule the decision of another panel, a prerogative reserved to the Court en banc. Moreover, it found that the “entire thrust” of Robertson was to allow “a contempt proceeding … initiated by a private party … with the involvement of and OAG attorney, but without the involvement of the [Office of the U.S. Attorney].” At the same time, however, the Court found it equally implausible that the Robertson requirement that a contempt action must proceed “in the name and pursuant to the sovereign power of the United States” could be ignored as being “entirely devoid of substantive meaning.” It was obvious to the Court, however, that although a petitioner could initiate a contempt proceeding, s/he could not proceed pro se to prosecute it because such a party does not have the capacity to represent the public interest beyond his or her own. The Court therefore laid out a set of procedures that it deemed would reasonably preserve the interests of all entities concerned. (D) As Applied. The Court set forth the following prosecutorial pre-requisites: (1) To conform to the “in the name of the sovereign” requirement, the Office of the United States Attorney “must at least be consulted as to its view regarding whether prosecution of the contempt is in the public interest.” (2) If that Office believes that a particular contempt prosecution does not qualify, it should be heard on that matter and the fact that it takes that position should be given some weight by the Court, although it is not dispositive. (3) Where that Office declines to prosecute, the Court retains its independent authority pursuant to DV Rule 12(d) & (e)(2), to vindicate its orders and “the settled public policy” is for it to appoint a private lawyer as a prosecutor “to assess whether it is in the public interest to pursue criminal contempt charges in connection with alleged violations of a CPO.)  (4) Such appointees would represent the United States, not the party that is the beneficiary of the court order allegedly violated, because such prosecutions are in the public interest by vindicating the Court’s authority, not simply the interests of the individuals involved. (5) Anyone appointed via this process must not have been involved in the case at issue and, beyond that, must not ever have had any prior connection to any interested party. (6) Because the Chief Judge of the Superior Court advises that there are no funds currently available under the D.C. Criminal Justice Act (CJA) to compensate any attorney making himself or herself available for such appointments, their service will be on a pro bono basis. (G) Conclusion. In this particular case, the Court scheduled a criminal contempt status hearing for August 24, 2011, at which the Office of the United States Attorney was directed to informant whether it will proceed with contempt charges herein, the Court reserving the authority to take the alternative steps set forth herein if deemed necessary.  

  • D.C. HUMAN RIGHTS ACT

    ELEMENTS FOR SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT / “SEVERE AND PERVASIVE” STANDARD / RETALIATION / PUNITIVE DAMAGES

     

     

    Précis: To prove a viable hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) s/he is a member of a protected class, (2) has been subjected to unwelcome harassment, which (3) was based on membership in that class, and (4) the harassment was “severe and pervasive” enough to affect “a term, condition, or privilege of employment.” Discrimination claims under the HRA are subject to the same guidelines as those under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the case law on which provides that “the entire time of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for the purposes of determining liability” because an initial act may still be part of the one hostile work environment claim and a charge may be filed at a later date and still encompass the whole. The D.C. Human Rights Act has a one-year statute of limitations, which requires that a discrimination suit under it must be filed “within one year of the unlawful discriminatory act, or the discovery thereof.” It also comprehends conduct which is arguably retaliatory in nature, which is relevant to a hostile work environment claim whether or not it would support a separate statutory retaliation claim. For statute of limitations purposes, any dates at issue constitute a factual dispute which must be decided by the jury, rather than by summary judgment motion. A claim alleging a hostile work environment by its “very nature involves repeated conduct based on the cumulative effect of individual acts.” Thus, to satisfy the one-year limitation only one act contributing to the claim need to occur within the statutory period. The conduct in question need not be “overtly sexual” to contribute to a sexual harassment-hostile work environment claim and all adverse conduct is relevant as long as it would not have taken place but for the gender of the alleged victim. In making that determination, a court must consider “the entire mosaic” of the hostile work environment. Demonstrating that harassment has occurred requires a balancing test that includes factors such as the amount and nature of the conduct, the plaintiff’s response, and the relationship between the plaintiff and the harassing party. No specific number of incidents and no specific level of egregiousness need be set forth; nor is the fact that each incident may not be individually actionable determinative of whether harassment has occurred. Instead, the trier of fact must consider the “totality of circumstances.” The gravamen of a sexual harassment claim is that the conduct complained of was “unwelcome.” To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must establish that (1) s/he was engaged in a statutorily-protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal relationship between the protected activity and the adverse action. An award of punitive damages is proper only when the tort is aggravated by “evil motive, actual malice, deliberate violence, or oppression.” In order to recover on such a claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate evidence – though not necessarily direct evidence – of “malice or reckless indifference” to his or her rights. 

     

    Abstract: Perhaps recalling the lesson that the Prophet Samuel learned when he made the mistake of appointing his ne’er-do-well sons as governors, but allowed his daughters to become only cooks and bakers (Samuel 8:1 & 13), the Plaintiff in this case fought for his position as a longtime cook for a major local church and won the initial battles, at least. Facts: Starting in 1987, the Plaintiff was employed as a cook at the Theological Seminary of Georgetown University and in the rectory of its local parish, Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, both Jesuit institutions. Five years later, he was allegedly subjected to sexual abuse by a Jesuit priest at the Seminary. The allegation was resolved privately, accompanied by a non-disclosure agreement. During the next 20 years he remained the cook at the Holy Trinity rectory. He learned in 2008, that his alleged abuser might be assigned to the Holy Trinity Parish and expressed his concern to Father A, one of the resident priests at the church. He claimed that in the ensuing weeks Father A’s attitude and tone with him “became more personal,” making him feel increasingly uncomfortable around the priest. He reported that, starting in the Spring of 2008, Father A began to approach him from behind as he worked in the kitchen and, using both hands, would grab him around his midsection “in a sexually provocative manner.” Although Plaintiff contends that he attempted to avoid such situations after that, Father A’s conduct of approaching him from behind continued. In mid-July of 2008, the Plaintiff went to his own supervisor, informing him of his alleged previous unfortunate experience with a local priest, and told him that he no longer wanted Father A putting his hands on him. The supervisor immediately sent an e-mail concerning the situation to the Director of Human Resources for the Washington Archdiocese, who instructed him to discuss the matter with Father B, the new senior pastor at the church, who “would settle the matter.” Although Father A was not disciplined, Father B asked him “to limit his contact with” the Plaintiff. Shortly thereafter, Father A was re-assigned to a suburban Washington church. Although this obviated any further problems with Father A, in the months that followed his transfer Plaintiff contended that he was subject to a “hostile work environment” perpetrated by other resident priests, who began to find fault with his procurement of their food, his cooking, the cleanliness of the rectory kitchen, and the general manner in which he performed his job. These putative concerns were further expressed to the Plaintiff in a letter from Father B, dated August 26, 2008, which stated that that he “would provide him with additional feedback regarding his performance.” The Plaintiff considered this letter “as a retaliatory notice of probation in direct response to his earlier complaints” regarding Father A’s conduct toward him. Fifty-two days after that, on October 17, 2008, Father B called the Plaintiff into a meeting in which he allegedly told him that, although his performance was satisfactory, the priests in the rectory would henceforth “cook for themselves” and he was terminated after nearly 20 years’ service, with a six-month severance package. Notably, however, within two weeks the church hired a woman to serve as cook in the rectory. One day short of a year after his termination, on October 16, 2009, Plaintiff filed his initial complaint in this case in Superior Court, claiming sexual discrimination and harassment in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act (HRA), together with a count for retaliation in further violation thereof, and seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. The Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that (1) the statute of limitations barred the count on sexual harassment and (2) the Plaintiff never engaged in a protected activity that would support his retaliation claim. The Defendant further contended that the Plaintiff had been terminated, not in retaliation, but for a legitimate business reason. Rulings: After recounting the well-known pre-requisites regarding summary judgment motions, the Court addressed the substantive issues presented as follows: (A) Sexual Harassment/Retaliation. The HRA has a one-year statute of limitations, which requires that a suit under it must be filed “within one year of the unlawful discriminatory act, or the discovery thereof.” The Defendant asserted that the limitation commenced in mid-July 2008, the date of the Plaintiff’s last interaction with Father A, and therefore that his suit filed in mid-October 2009, was two months out of time. The Plaintiff responded that the allegedly retaliatory termination on October 17, 2008, was inseparable from the pattern of sexual harassment to which he had been subjected and therefore his complaint was timely filed, by at least one day. Our Court of Appeals has held that “conduct retaliatory in nature is relevant to a hostile work environment claim whether or not it would support a separate statutory retaliation claim.” Even at that, bearing in mind that it was a summary judgment motion before the Court, it found that any dates at issue constituted a factual dispute which must be decided by the jury, rather than by motion. (B) Timeliness/Hostile Work Environment. To prove a viable hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) s/he is a member of a protected class, (2) has been subjected to unwelcome harassment, which (3) was based on membership in that class, and (4) the harassment was “severe and pervasive” enough to affect “a term, condition, or privilege of employment.” Discrimination claims under the HRA are subject to the same guidelines as those under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the case law on which provides that “the entire time of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for the purposes of determining liability” because an initial act may “still be part of the one hostile work environment claim and a charge may be filed at a later date and still encompass the whole.” Our Court of Appeals has also held that a claim alleging a hostile work environment by its “very nature … involves repeated conduct … based on the cumulative effect of individual acts.” Thus, to satisfy the one-year limitation, the Court ruled, only “one act contributing to the claim need to occur within the statutory period.” The Court further ruled that if the jury found that the Plaintiff was terminated within the limitations period, after he had complained about discriminatory conduct, there could be no question that his termination was “adverse conduct relevant to the claim of a hostile work environment.” The Court of Appeals has also found that the conduct in question need not be “overtly sexual to contribute to a sexual harassment-hostile work environment claim” and that “all adverse conduct is relevant as long as it would not have taken place but for the gender of the alleged victim.” In making that determination, a court must consider “the entire mosaic” of the hostile work environment. (C) “Severe and Pervasive” Standard. The Court considered the requisite elements for a prima
    facie
    case of sexual harassment as follows:  (1) Protected Class. Although the Plaintiff is a male of apparently Italian descent (it being the same name as that of a famous 16th-century Italian Mannerist engraver of the late Renaissance), the Court initially observed that “[u]nder the circumstances,” he “would be considered a member of a protected class if the allegations prove meritorious.” Inasmuch as it is a rare case, however, that a male would be deemed a member of a protected class, in a separate section of the opinion the Court found that “it is clear that the alleged behavior and the touching could be plausibly motivated by the Plaintiff’s gender,” a conclusion that the Court arrived at by noting that Father A was not known the touch any the females present in the rectory. (2) Harassment. Demonstrating the second factor requires a balancing test that includes “factors such as the amount and nature of the conduct, the plaintiff’s response, and the relationship between the plaintiff and the harassing party.” No specific number of incidents and no specific level of egregiousness need be set forth; nor is the fact that each incident may not be individually actionable determinative of whether harassment has occurred. Instead, the trier of fact must consider the “totality of circumstances.” The gravamen of a sexual harassment claim is that the conduct complained of was “unwelcome.” Here, the Court found, the Plaintiff asserted that the alleged advances by Father A occurred several times, were unwelcome, and caused him distress. It ruled, therefore, “that a jury could reasonably find that there was outrageous behavior amounting to sexual harassment and a hostile working environment.” (3) Effect on Employment. This element, the Court found, was demonstrated for summary judgment purposes by the fact that Plaintiff’s initial complaint about Father A’s conduct resulted in negative performance reviews and eventual termination, which was plausibly retaliatory in nature. In sum, therefore, the Court ruled that “Plaintiff has shown that the alleged sexual harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a genuine issue of material fact for jury.” (D) Retaliation. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must establish that (1) s/he was engaged in a statutorily-protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal relationship between the protected activity and the adverse action. The Plaintiff alleged in this case that after he reported Father A’s behavior in July 2008, he became subject to increased scrutiny and criticism of his work, which constituted a pattern of antagonism culminating in his termination within three months. The Court ruled that the Defendant’s assertion that Plaintiff’s termination was based on a legitimate business reason was a matter still in dispute and could not be resolved by means of the Defendant’s summary judgment motion. The same is to be said, it ruled, on the third factor, causation, regarding the Defendant’s contention that Plaintiff’s termination was unrelated to the alleged protected activity. Finally, the Court pointedly observed that the church hired a female cook for the rectory within two weeks of terminating the Plaintiff. (E) Punitive Damages. An award of punitive damages is proper “only when the tort is aggravated by evil motive, actual malice, deliberate violence, or oppression.” In order to recover on such a claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate evidence – though not necessarily direct evidence – of “malice or reckless indifference” to his or her rights. The Court found that the record as to this issue is as yet not fully developed and therefore it elected, for the time being, to allow the request for a punitive damage award to go forward. (F) Conclusion. All aspects of the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment were denied.

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