The D.C. Court of Appeals has recently issued a series of opinions adopting Legal Aid’s views on a wide variety of issues that impact our client community. These decisions represent a broad range of Legal Aid work in the areas of housing, family law, and public benefits.
1. Court of Appeals restores wrongfully terminated housing subsidy and ensures greater opportunity to challenge erroneous agency decisions. Mathis v. D.C. Housing Authority (D.C. Court of Appeals, October 8, 2015).
The D.C. Housing Authority took away Stevon Mathis’s federal housing subsidy because someone else was arrested in his apartment while Mr. Mathis was away. Without the subsidy, Mr. Mathis could no longer afford to rent an apartment, and he became homeless.
Legal Aid took his case to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The Court held that Mr. Mathis was not legally responsible for the misdeeds of the person who was arrested because that person was simply a guest in Mr. Mathis’s apartment, rather than a part of Mr. Mathis’s household. The Court ordered the Housing Authority to restore his housing assistance, which now will enable Mr. Mathis to regain a safe and affordable home.
The Court‘s decision in this case also established an important rule of law for other cases that will follow. The Court settled a years-long dispute regarding whether the Housing Authority’s decision to terminate a family’s voucher is reviewable in the Superior Court or in the Court of Appeals. Legal Aid had long maintained that the proper challenge was in the Court of Appeals, where it can be easier for individuals – particularly poor individuals – to assert their claims. In its decision in Mr. Mathis’s case, the Court of Appeals agreed that it was the proper place to bring such challenges, opening the door to others who have been wronged by the Housing Authority to get effective relief in the future.
2. Employer seeking to end workers’ compensation payments to disabled worker must prove that the worker is no longer disabled. Ross v. D.C. Department of Employment Services (D.C. Court of Appeals, October 29, 2015).
Workers’ compensation statutes are intended to provide speedy and fair payments to individuals who suffer from workplace injuries. Cassandra Ross was disabled as a result of an injury while working for the D.C. Department of Corrections and received workers’ compensation payments as a result. But years later, the D.C. government decided that Ms. Ross was no longer disabled and stopped making workers’ compensation payments to her. She challenged this decision but was unsuccessful, and, as a non-lawyer, had difficulty explaining her situation to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals appointed Legal Aid as a friend of the court to explain legal issues that Ms. Ross had not addressed, including whether the agency had erred in requiring Ms. Ross to prove that she remained disabled. Legal Aid’s brief explained that the proper rule was that once a worker’s disability had been established – as was true for Ms. Ross – the worker should not have to repeatedly prove that she was still disabled. Instead, an employer seeking to stop (or decrease) workers’ compensation payments should have to prove that the employee is no longer disabled. The Court of Appeals agreed.
The Court of Appeals decision ensures that workers’ compensation rules in D.C. are fair to disabled workers. Employers can no longer repeatedly force employees to prove that they remain disabled. Instead, if a disabled employee’s condition materially improves, it is up the employee to prove that improvement if it wants to stop paying benefits. The Court’s opinion more generally notes the importance of workers’ compensation statutes’ “humanitarian purpose,” and notes that although the District has three separate workers’ compensation statutes (one for first responders, a second for government employees, and a third for private-sector employees), all three should be interpreted consistently to further that humanitarian purpose.
3. Individuals need not engage in futile administrative proceedings. Tagoe v. D.C. Department of Employment Services (D.C. Court of Appeals, September 3, 2015).
In another workers’ compensation case, Maryanne Tagoe sought a number of specific payments for her workplace injury, including compensation for travel mileage expenses. The highest administrative body to address such issues (the Compensation Review Board) decided that Ms. Tagoe was not entitled to such expenses and remanded the matter to a lower administrative official (an Administrative Law Judge) to enter an order denying those expenses, which the Administrative Law Judge did. Ms. Tagoe then asked the Court of Appeals to review this denial. Legal Aid acted as a friend of the court with respect to whether Ms. Tagoe needed to go back to the Board before asking the Court for assistance. Legal Aid informed the Court that going back to the Board in this situation would be an unnecessary waste of time, since the Board had already made its position on the expenses clear. Legal Aid also noted that it would have been more efficient for the Board to have issued the order denying those expenses itself, rather than having the Administrative Law Judge do so.
The Court of Appeals adopted Legal Aid’s position. It noted that the Board’s stance on these expenses was clear and that it therefore would have been futile and superfluous to require Ms. Tagoe to go back to the Board again. The Court also agreed that the Board could have issued a final ruling itself, without sending the case to the Administrative Law Judge. This ruling reinforces the common-sense rule that individuals are not required to take futile steps or make requests that could not possibly be granted.