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When D.C. leaders created the Office of Administrative Hearings, in 2002, they envisioned a user-friendly court system for residents looking to challenge city-agency decisions involving a range of issues — from housing to food stamps to historic preservation to unemployment benefits. Instead many citizens, advocates, and lawyers who use the court, which handles more than 16,000 cases a year, complain that it has been a bureaucratic nightmare, beset by complicated rules, overflowing caseloads, and clueless administrators. While court leaders admit there have been problems, they claim they’ve made progress in addressing concerns over the past year and have reached out to critics to try to repair frayed relations. Still, two years after the court began hearing cases, advocates and even some of the court’s staff maintain that problems remain. Phil Mendelson, chair of the D.C. Council‘s Judiciary Committee, says the court’s hiring process takes too long, given a growing backlog of unresolved cases. Additionally, he says the court, which is currently spread among five offices downtown, bungled two chances to find a centralized location because of inexperienced managers. These issues are especially important, he says, since the court is set to take on thousands of new and more complex rent-control cases this fall. “The two fundamental issues are space and the hiring of administrative law judges,” says Mendelson, who held three oversight hearings into the agency’s progress in 2005 and plans to hold another one this week. “If their mission is to take on these cases and to adjudicate them quickly and fairly, and they are unable to do that, then that is a judgment on them.”
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One administrative law judge, who asked not to be named, says there are 1,000-plus cases that have been languishing for more than a year. This judge puts the blame for delays squarely on court management. “The main problem is, why the hell does it take so long? Because there is no reason for it to,” the judge says. “People don’t need to wait six months to a year to get a decision.” Chief Judge Tyrone Butler acknowledges the problem, saying the court was understaffed and unprepared to deal with the gigantic caseload it inherited from D.C. agencies. He also admits his relationship with many involved with the court was not good, but says that and the other issues have been resolved. “We didn’t take cases until March 2004, and at that time there were some misconceptions on my part regarding our relationship with the agencies, the government, the advocates, what have you,” Butler says. “In March 2005 we started working very closely with the advocate groups and the agencies, and, believe me, the change, as far as how easy things became, was just phenomenal. . . . Now we have various task forces to work with the advocate groups. There is no agency director whose cases we handle that I have not sat down with and given them my direct number, so if there is anything that our staff cannot handle, then we talk.” Butler says the court is now fully staffed and, despite continuing criticism, the judges have made huge progress on the backlog. He claims the court is currently in negotiations for new office space and, assuming the D.C. Council approves a lease, should be in new quarters by the end of the year. STREAMLINING AND STONEWALLING Originally, the idea of bringing the adjudicative functions of 10 city agencies under one roof enjoyed widespread community support. In the past all of the agencies had their own set of rules and regulations and hired their own administrative law judges, who heard challenges to agency decisions. But having agency employees resolve disputed rulings created the perception of a conflict of interest, and the agencies had varying degrees of success in managing their caseload. The idea was to create a separate court that unified a hodgepodge of processes and streamlined the system so it would be easier for D.C. residents to navigate. Butler, the former chief administrative law judge for the New York State Department of Health, was hired by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to run the office in 2003. Butler and his senior staff had limited experience running a large government agency. Concerns within the advocate community began almost immediately after the court’s March 2004 opening. Advocates worried that the one-size-fits-all approach was not working for poor and uneducated residents who could not understand the new court’s complex rules and rigid procedures. Frustration among the advocates mounted when their efforts to discuss their concerns with Butler and other court leaders were ignored. At one point, D.C. Councilwoman Kathy Patterson tried to broker a meeting, but a dispute arose over how many people would be allowed to attend. So for Butler, March 7, 2005 — the day the judge and his senior staff appeared before the council for a scheduled oversight hearing — was a day of reckoning. Butler was lambasted. A parade of critics hit him with a litany of grievances. The Legal Aid Society complained of unreadable notices, absurd barriers to getting case files and requesting continuances, long delays in scheduling hearings, and inflexibility in dealing with basic needs like food stamps and shelter. Representatives who handled unemployment cases testified that in many instances delays in getting decisions out of the court made even bringing cases a futile exercise. And the Capital Restoration Society said that by the time the agency ruled on saving historic landmarks, many times the landmark had already vanished. Over and over, everyone who testified said that letters and phone calls to court officials went unanswered and unreturned. “It was unprecedented — the degree with which they did not want to meet with us,” says Eric Angel, legal director of the Legal Aid Society of D.C. When Butler and his deputies finally reached the dais to testify, Mendelson was unrelenting. He asked why negotiations to find suitable office space had fallen apart and chastised the officials for their hiring practices and growing case backlog. Butler says he was caught off-guard by the level of vitriol at the hearing. “At the time I thought from some of the advice I was getting that we were headed down the right track,” he says. But at the same time, Butler says, his instincts were telling him things were not going well. “If I had come in, in the very beginning and ignored the advice I was getting and used my instincts . . . it would have not happened that way,” he says. “We would have had an open-door policy from the very beginning.” The person to whom Butler was listening was Deputy Chief Judge Paul Klein, who previously had served as the chief administrative law judge for the D.C. Department of Health. Klein resigned in the spring of 2005, shortly after the March oversight hearing. Though the exact reasons for Klein’s resignation remain unclear (no one interviewed was eager to criticize him in print), many confirm that after his departure the agency almost immediately underwent a dramatic change for the better. Butler likewise declined to blame Klein for problems at the court, at least directly. “If I took the advice, then it is my responsibility and I am the enlightened one,” he says. Klein could not be located for comment. The court began meeting regularly with the advocates and became more receptive to suggestions. It also simplified the hearing process and rewrote regulations for handling cases that deal with issues such as Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and temporary shelter. The biggest changes included allowing litigants to make oral requests for hearings, instead of making them fill out paperwork, and allowing litigants to bring friends or relatives with them to help translate and explain the proceedings. Scott McNeilly of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says: “It is much, much better. They are processing cases much more quickly and prioritizing them given the immediacy of the need.” THE WAITING GAME Though the court appears to have resolved many of the issues involving the poor, other parties who use the office say it still has serious problems with managing its caseload. “In the beginning they were understaffed and ill prepared to take on the volume of cases; they were completely incapable of getting decisions out,” says Chris Miles, president of Renaissance Unemployment Insurance Consultants, who represents employers in unemployment cases. Clients were waiting three, four, or six months for decisions that should have taken only a matter of weeks, he says. Miles says the court has gotten better in terms of resolving some cases faster, but he is still waiting on others that are almost a year old. Tonya Love, program director of the Claimant Advocacy Program at the Washington DC Metro Council AFL-CIO, agrees. “They have cut down on the backlog of decisions,” she says, “but any backlog is bad.” She says she keeps a running tally of her open cases that are more than a month old. For a while there were about 30 to 35 cases on the list; now it’s down to about 15. But that is only part of the problem. Until just last month, she says, some appeals had been sitting for more than a month before a hearing date was even scheduled. The U.S. Department of Labor mandates that unemployment cases be decided swiftly, requiring that a certain percentage of them be resolved in 30, 45, and 90 days. The District’s administrative court has not met those guidelines and has been put on a performance-improvement plan that subjects it to increased monitoring by the Labor Department. Butler says that when his staff took over the office they inherited a large number of unresolved cases that were past 90 days and he did not have enough staff to address the old cases and keep up with the new ones coming in. Since September, he says, they have been able to reduce that backlog by about 70 percent. “We have been able to do that because we have a full complement of ALJs [administrative law judges] now and we have people come in on weekends and work late, long hours,” he says. “We take care of the easy cases very quickly, and we line up those cases that are more complex for people to actually do hearings on.” But with so many cases still backlogged, Love says she is concerned the court will become overloaded in October when it is set to take on thousands of new rent-control cases. “It is scary,” Love says. “They are my judges, and rent-control cases are more complex. So there is a big concern that it could go back to the way it was before.” Butler says he is confident that won’t happen, as plans are in place for the transition. But the administrative law judge who asked not to be identified says that the basic conditions that led to the backlog have not changed and with more cases, the problems will just get worse. This judge says the court has dealt with the backlog by having the newly hired judges listen to tapes of the hearings of, and write opinions on, older cases. The problem with handling the backlog in this way, the judge explains, is that while the oldest cases are being decided, newer cases that arrive are just being added to the backlog. Mendelson is also concerned. The court’s “caseload is not even close to where they should be,” he says, “and the fact that they are nearly fully staffed means they should be processing cases more efficiently and they should be able to handle the increased caseload.” He says he hopes the court will be ready for the new cases on Oct. 1, but the date was pushed back three times before, and he says it can be pushed back again. “I am hopeful, but I am getting impatient.”

Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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