Crying Poverty Leads to Dismissal of Employee Complaint

An employee at the Department of Education said she could not afford a legal filing fee of $250. She avoided the filing fee based on her representation of not having any substantial assets. The judge was unhappy when, according to the court, she underestimated her assets by more than $562,000. Case dismissed.

Because a GS-11 Department of Education employee misrepresented her assets so that she could avoid paying the $250 filing fee for her discrimination complaint against the agency, the federal court has dismissed her case. (Johnson v. Spellings, D.D.C. No. CA 06-321 (GK), 10/1/08) The facts outlined below are taken from the court’s decision.

Susan Johnson was an Accountant with a career ladder to a GS-12. She filed an administrative EEO complaint on the basis of disability, claiming that she had been denied a career promotion to GS-12, was required to have work credit hours approved, and was denied 72 hours leave without pay for a vacation with her husband to the Galapagos Islands. (Opinion pp. 1-2)

She left the agency in 2004, but filed her complaint in court two years later. She applied to the court for in forma pauperis status. In support of the application she submitted the required affidavit of financial status on which she claimed her only asset was a 1992 Saturn car worth about $300. The court granted her application based on her representations and as a result Johnson was able to avoid paying the required $250 filing fee. (p. 3)

Following an evidentiary hearing on the agency’s motion to dismiss in which only Johnson testified, the court now concludes that Johnson’s statement of assets was “not accurate.” (p. 3)

The court found evidence that Johnson in fact had two T. Rowe Price accounts. One, owned jointly with her GS-15 husband, had about $170,000, and the other was her sole account worth about $27,000. She also owned a condo jointly with her husband that was worth more than $366,000. (pp. 3-4)

By way of explanation as to why she did not disclose these assets to the court, Johnson testified that she had a verbal agreement with her husband that she could not touch any of the money in the two T. Rowe Price accounts until after his death, and that she did not realize the condo was in her name as well as his. (p. 3)

Here’s what Judge Kessler had to say about Johnson’s explanations: “The Court finds Plaintiff’s testimony patently incredible.” (p. 4) Citing Johnson’s status as an accountant with several years experience and a business administration degree, the court goes on to state, “It is just not credible that she would not understand and/or know that she had joint tenancy rights in these very substantial assets.” (p. 4) Judge Kessler characterized Johnson’s testimony as “vague and evasive… difficult to obtain a straight answer to the questions asked of her.” Judge Kessler found it “hard to believe that an accountant, represented by counsel, whose husband is a GS-15 accountant, can underestimate her assets by more than $562,000.” (p. 4)

The law governing I forma pauperis” (26 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(A)) requires that the court dismiss a case if it finds that “the allegation of poverty is untrue.” (p. 4) That is exactly what Judge Kessler now does with the following shake of her head: “While it is extremely difficult to understand why the Plaintiff would have misrepresented her assets in order to avoid paying a modest $250 filing fee, the fact of the matter is that is exactly what she did. What is more, it is clear that her standard of living is nowhere near the Government’s established poverty level.” (p. 4)

Case dismissed. Ms. Johnson has lost her day in court.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.