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Drejza v. Vaccaro

August 25, 1994

DONNA M. DREJZA, APPELLANT
v.
MICHAEL J. VACCARO, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Cheryl M. Long, Trial Judge)

Before Terry and Schwelb, Associate Judges, and Kern, Senior Judge. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Schwelb. Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge Terry.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb

SCHWELB, Associate Judge: In this action for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress brought by Donna M. Drejza, a rape victim, against Michael J. Vaccaro, the police detective assigned to investigate the rape, the trial Judge granted Vaccaro's motion for summary judgment. The principal question presented on appeal is whether, treating Ms. Drejza's account of her dealings with Detective Vaccaro as true and drawing all reasonable inferences from the record in her favor, Vaccaro's conduct while interviewing her shortly after the rape was sufficiently severe and outrageous to entitle Ms. Drejza to a determination by a jury of the question whether she should recover damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The trial Judge found that, if Ms. Drejza's account is credited, Vaccaro's conduct was obnoxious and boorish, but she concluded as a matter of law that it was insufficiently extreme to entitle Ms. Drejza to any relief. On appeal, Ms. Drejza contends that Vaccaro, who knew that she had been raped and traumatized, and that she was therefore in an especially vulnerable condition, abused his position of authority by deriding, belittling and insulting her, and that under all of the circumstances, Vaccaro's conduct as described by her was sufficiently outrageous to support her claim.

The issue presented to us is a difficult one. Many of the comments by Detective Vaccaro of which Ms. Drejza complains, standing alone, might reasonably be characterized as legitimate (though ill-timed) inquiries by an officer charged with investigating a case and assessing its strength, or as, at most, imprecise and perhaps ill-advised remarks which were insufficient to support a finding of outrageousness. An impartial juror might, on the other hand, reasonably view not only as obnoxious, but also as outrageous, some of Detective Vaccaro's more extreme alleged conduct -- e.g., tossing a distraught rape victim's undergarments at her while telling her to take her "little panties home," and later joking and snickering about her lack of virginity, as reflected by her "marital hymen."

A decision in Ms. Drejza's favor may conjure up visions (or specters) of the proverbial slippery slope in an area of the law in which courts have traditionally (and prudently) exercised a measure of restraint. Nevertheless, taking the entire tone and flavor of the encounter into consideration, we conclude that in this case the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Ms. Drejza, raises genuine issues of material fact precluding the entry of summary judgment. Specifically, we conclude that the trial Judge, in granting summary judgment in favor of Vaccaro, failed to recognize the significance of the most important fact in the case, namely, that Ms. Drejza's initial interview by a police detective of the "Sex Offense Branch" occurred only an hour or so after she had been raped. An impartial jury could readily conclude that a woman who had been subjected to such a dehumanizing ordeal was far more susceptible to emotional distress than someone in less vulnerable circumstances, and the outrageousness determination must be made with her special circumstances in mind. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment as to the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

THE FACTS

In the early morning hours of May 16, 1987, Ms. Drejza was assaulted, raped and sodomized in her apartment by Jeffrey D. Smith, a former boyfriend with whom she had terminated a romantic relationship a few months earlier, but with whom she had remained friendly. Although Ms. Drejza voluntarily admitted Smith to her home, the encounter became a violent one. Protesting that Ms. Drejza had "dumped" him, Smith initially requested her to have sex with him. When Ms. Drejza declined his advances, Smith forcibly subdued her. He ripped off her clothes, struck her about the face and back, smashed her face into a pillow, and choked her. Smith forced his penis into Ms. Drejza's mouth and vagina, and he threatened to hit, kick or kill her if she resisted. At times, Ms. Drejza was unable to breathe. She suffered bruises, swellings, and broken blood vessels around her eyes. Smith's hands also left marks around her neck, and she had an assortment of other pains and injuries. *fn1

Shortly after Smith left her apartment, *fn2 Ms. Drejza called 911 to report the rape. Uniformed officers arrived on the scene and took her to police headquarters, where her case was assigned to Detective Vaccaro, then a member of the Metropolitan Police Department's Sex Offense Branch. Vaccaro interviewed her at some length and, according to Ms. Drejza, ridiculed and bullied her into signing a statement to the effect that she did not wish to press charges. It was Detective Vaccaro's conduct during the course of this encounter, and at a second meeting twelve days later (when Ms. Drejza returned to press charges), that forms the basis for Ms. Drejza's claim against Vaccaro.

According to Ms. Drejza's complaint, on which she elaborated in her deposition, Detective Vaccaro "showed little interest in story or in taking a detailed statement from her, and instead suggested that she simply forget about the incident." During the course of the interview, Vaccaro allegedly asked questions and made comments along the lines indicated in the accompanying footnote. *fn3 For the reasons stated below, we do not view most of these statements, standing alone, as constituting tortious conduct supporting recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The specific words used by Detective Vaccaro, however, may be less significant than his manner and tone towards Ms. Drejza as the distraught and shaken young woman attempted to tell the story of her ordeal. Ms. Drejza testified that Vaccaro acted in an obnoxious manner throughout the interview, snickered at her account, and generally treated her with derision and scorn, apparently because her assailant was someone she knew and because she had had voluntary sexual relations with him in the past. According to Ms. Drejza, Vaccaro was "smiling during the whole thing," acting "like he enjoyed it." He had a "smirk on his face when I was telling him about what was going on, like he was enjoying it." Although she had brought her torn underwear and brassiere to police headquarters with her, as she had been instructed to do, Vaccaro declined to accept them, telling her to "take your little panties home with you" and "just tossing it back at me." Ms. Drejza then testified as follows:

He was just a real jerk about it. I don't think he should have been smiling during this whole thing, like getting enjoyment from it.

He kind of thought it was, oh, a little fight between boyfriend and girlfriend, even though it wasn't that way at all. I don't know whether he is used to seeing women with bruises on their faces.

So he made it sound like it's just going to be awful if I want to pursue this. I should just go home and forget about it. After all, I already had sex with him before. *fn4 What difference does it make, was his attitude.

Through these and other remarks and actions, Vaccaro made Ms. Drejza "feel guilty about it, like it wasn't really that bad, or you're not really worth it." At the Conclusion of the interview, allegedly as a result of the pressure put on her by Detective Vaccaro, Ms. Drejza signed a statement to the effect that she did not wish to prosecute.

Ms. Drejza testified that when she returned twelve days later to press charges, Detective Vaccaro's attitude was essentially unchanged. Upon learning that Ms. Vaccaro wished to pursue the case, he commented that "you now want to file a report and send that guy to jail for life." He also joked and snickered at a reference in a medical report to Ms. Drejza's "marital hymen," remarking that this "means you are not a virgin." On this occasion, Ms. Drejza complained to the lieutenant in charge, and another detective was assigned to her case.

Vaccaro also testified on deposition. He stated that, from the beginning of the initial interview, Ms. Drejza stated that she did not wish to press charges, but only wanted Smith to receive psychological treatment. *fn5 He denied attempting to influence her in any way regarding the decision whether or not to prosecute. Although Detective Vaccaro acknowledged that he may have made parts of some of the comments described in footnote 3, (supra) , he insisted that he was simply posing legitimate inquiries and that the decision at the time of the initial interview not to seek prosecution of Smith was entirely Ms. Drejza's.

II.

THE TRIAL COURT PROCEEDINGS

On May 16, 1988, Ms. Drejza instituted the present action against Vaccaro and two other defendants. *fn6 She alleged in her complaint, inter alia, that "the actions of Defendants Smith and Vaccaro described above constitute extreme and outrageous conduct which intentionally, recklessly or negligently caused Plaintiff severe emotional distress."

Vaccaro filed a motion to dismiss the complaint against him on the ground that "plaintiff has failed to allege in her pleadings, the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, as a matter of law." Judge Wolf denied the motion. Vaccaro then filed a motion for reconsideration or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, adding a number of grounds not material here. With Judge Wolf's ...


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