Earlier this month, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued a decision in a case that provides an important clarification for District employees. The opinion makes clear that the District cannot fire an employee, thereby economically forcing the employee to start receiving payments from his retirement annuity, and then assert that the receipt of those payments prevents the employee from challenging the firing.
In this case, Andrew Johnson had been an employee of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for 17 years until he was terminated by DCPS in 2011. Mr. Johnson attempted to challenge the termination by filing a case at the Office of Employee Appeals (OEA), but because it took nearly two years to even schedule an initial hearing for his case, Mr. Johnson – who had no income during this time – was forced to access his vested retirement benefits to sustain him while he sought reinstatement from OEA.
Unfortunately, the OEA Administrative Law Judge who heard his case determined that Mr. Johnson’s decision to access his vested benefits barred him from challenging his termination. Under District law, a District employee who voluntarily resigns employment prior to being terminated cannot challenge his or her termination with OEA. In those cases, OEA cannot review the case because technically the employee was not terminated, but quit instead.
The Court of Appeals asked Legal Aid to participate in this case as an amicus curiae or friend of the Court.* Legal Aid’s inaugural Sidley Appellate Advocacy Fellow, David Carpman, was primarily responsible for presenting Legal Aid’s views to the Court. Legal Aid argued that the OEA Administrative Law Judge had erroneously treated Mr. Johnson’s case as a case of voluntary resignation, when in fact Mr. Johnson had never quit and had accessed his retirement benefits only after being terminated, which put him in a special category of receiving “involuntary retirement benefits” for employees in precisely this situation.
In its opinion the Court of Appeals recognized that there is nothing inconsistent about receiving involuntary retirement benefits while simultaneously challenging a termination. The published opinion represents a total victory for Legal Aid as amicus and for Mr. Johnson, who can now challenge his termination with OEA. Furthermore, the opinion should put an end to what has been a fundamentally unfair practice by the District, providing a necessary protection for the more than 35,000 employees of the District government.
*Please note that Legal Aid's October 17, 2018 e-newsletter incorrectly stated that Andrew Johnson was our client. Legal Aid participated in this case as amicus curiae and therefore did not represent Mr. Johnson.