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ARMSTRONG v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC LIBRARY

August 21, 2001

RICHARD S. ARMSTRONG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC LIBRARY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan, United States District Judge

  MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Richard Armstrong, a homeless man, challenges the District of Columbia Public Library's appearance regulation that he claims Library personnel applied against him to deny him access to the Martin Luther King Memorial Library (the "Library"), because of his "objectionable appearance." Armstrong has named as defendants the District of Columbia, the D.C. Public Library and its Director, Dr. Hardy Franklin, as well as eight members of the Library Board of Trustees, and two unnamed Library employees. The Director and trustees are sued in both their official and personal capacities.
Plaintiff alleges that the regulation in question violates the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code Ann. § 1-2501, et seq., and its prohibition against appearance discrimination. Plaintiff also claims that the appearance regulation violates 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the United States Constitution because, on its face, the regulation is both vague and overbroad, in violation of the First Amendment, and because application of the regulation is arbitrary and without fair notice, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Moreover, plaintiff contends that the regulation violates equal protection under the Fifth Amendment because no rational basis exists to support this regulation, the purpose of which, he alleges, is to intentionally discriminate against the homeless. Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief enjoining defendants from applying the appearance regulation in a manner that violates the Constitution or any statute, and declaratory relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 that the regulation in question violates the U.S. Constitution, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Pending before the Court are defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims and plaintiff's cross-motion for partial summary judgment on all but the Fifth Amendment equal protection claim.*fn1 Upon consideration of those pleadings, the undisputed facts and relevant law, and the hearing held on the motions, plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment is GRANTED as to plaintiff's First Amendment and Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause claims; and defendant's motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff's DCHRA claim is GRANTED due to plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1979, the D.C. Public Library promulgated Guidelines for Handling Security Matters that include a regulation instructing Library personnel to deny access to individual patrons with "objectionable appearance." Although the term "Loiterers and Vagrants" was deleted from the title of the Guideline during branch-wide policy revisions in 1982, the specific appearance regulation at issue, and its "objectionable" criteria remained unchanged.*fn2 Deposition testimony revealed that a "proliferation of more street people and more homeless" in 1979 "precipitated the need for this policy." Pl.'s Reply Ex. B, Johnson 5/1/96 Dep. at 35.

Plaintiff alleges that on Sunday, February 14, 1993, he attempted to enter the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. Plaintiff was residing in an area shelter at the time, and he came to the Library wearing a shirt, shoes, pants, several sweaters, and two winter jackets to stave off the cold weather. Plaintiff testified that he arrived at the Library with a telephone directory and newspaper, intending to read and take notes at a Library table, but that he was stopped at the Library entrance and denied access to the facility by security personnel. After being told only that he needed to "clean up," plaintiff was instructed to leave the building, which he did. At no time was plaintiff informed of the existence of the regulation in question or what specifically about his appearance was deemed to be prohibited.

II. DISCUSSION

The Court will first determine who the appropriate defendants are in this suit, and then address plaintiff's claims under the DCHRA, the Constitution, and § 1983.

A. The Library

Defendants first contend that the Library is not an appropriate party to be sued in view of long-standing precedent that holds that "bodies within the District of Columbia government are not suitable as separate entities." Braxton v. National Capital Housing Auth., 396 A.2d 215, 216 (D.C. 1978). Although the Board of Library Trustees is an "independent agency" under D.C. Code Ann. § 1-603.1(13), unlike the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia, another independent agency, the Board of Library Trustees has not been granted the authority to sue or defend suits. "Capacity to sue and be sued is governed by state law." Bridges v. Kelly, 977 F. Supp. 503, 506 n. 4 (D.D.C. 1997) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b)). Compare D.C. Code § 31-1511 (granting the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia the authority to "sue and be sued") with D.C. Code Ann. § 37-105 (setting forth the duties of the Board of Library Trustees with no mention of litigating authority). Accordingly, all claims against the District of Columbia Public Library are hereby DISMISSED.

B. Individual Defendants

Plaintiff has also named as defendants the Director of the Library and eight individual members of the Library's Board of Trustees in their official and individual capacities, as well as three unnamed Library employees. Defendants assert qualified immunity for these defendants in their individual capacities. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). Under Harlow, a government official may be liable for actions taken "which violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. at 818.
Plaintiff alleges that the vagueness and overbreath problems of the regulation were brought to the attention of the Director and Trustees subsequent to its enaction, that the Board of Trustees discussed requests to revise the appearance regulation, and that the Board in fact revised the regulation twice since its first drafting. As the Supreme Court recently held in Crawford-El v. Britton, 118 S.Ct. 1584 (1998), however, even evidence of improper motive is irrelevant to a claim of qualified immunity. Id. at 1591. Under Harlow, as clarified by Crawford-El, the issue is not the individual defendant's motive in taking certain action, but rather, whether a reasonable person would have known that maintaining the appearance regulation violated a clearly established constitutional right.*fn3
Although plaintiff argues that the right to receive information has been established since at least 1943, see Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U.S. 141, 146-47 (1943), the right at issue in this case is narrower, and focuses rather on the type of regulation that may properly be maintained in controlling access to a limited public forum, such as a public library. Here, the Court cannot conclude that a reasonable person would have known that the regulation at issue violated a clearly established constitutional right. "The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable [person] would understand that what he is doing violates that right. . . . [I]n light of preexisting law the unlawfulness must be apparent." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639-40 (1987). Thus, the Court concludes that summary judgment should be granted in favor of the Director and Trustees of the Library, as well as the three unnamed Library employees, on the basis of qualified immunity. Accordingly, all claims asserted against those defendants in their individual capacities are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

The Court will next address the issue of whether plaintiff's private cause of action under the DCHRA should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative requirements.

C. Plaintiff's Private Cause of Action under the D.C. Human Rights Act

The DCHRA prohibits discrimination based on "personal appearance." D.C. Code Ann. § 1-2501. This term is defined as "the outward appearance of any person, irrespective of sex, with regard to bodily condition or characteristics, manner or style of dress, and manner or style of personal grooming, including, but not limited to, hair style and beards." D.C. Code Ann. § 1-2502(22). Only a specific series of exceptions exist permitting appearance-based regulations where they relate to
the requirement of cleanliness, uniforms, or prescribed standards, when uniformly applied for admittance to a public accommodation, . . .; or when such bodily conditions or characteristics, style or manner of dress or personal grooming presents a danger to the health, welfare or safety of any individual.

D.C. Code Ann. § 1-2502(22).

Defendants contend that plaintiff may not prosecute his DCHRA claims because D.C. Code § 1-2543 provides exclusive administrative procedures for DCHRA complaints filed against the District government.*fn4

Second, plaintiff argues that the plain language of § 1-2556 of the DCHRA enables him to commence a private action either in this Court or through the District's Office of Human Rights.*fn5 Plaintiff also maintains that, on its face, § 1-2543 does not preclude pursuit of relief in the courts or create an exclusive remedy of administrative proceedings, but rather, that section provides for the general availability of administrative remedies.

Defendants rely heavily on Williams v. District of Columbia, 467 A.2d 140 (1983), in support of their argument that plaintiff may not bring this private cause of action against the District of Columbia. In Williams, however, the primary factor guiding the Court of Appeal's decision appears to be plaintiff's status as a D.C. government employee. Id. at 142. The Williams court held that
the administrative remedies provided by D.C. Code § 1-2543 (1981) and its predecessors . . . are the exclusive remedies available to a District of Columbia government employee claiming discrimination in employment, and that the private right of action established by D.C. Code § 1-2556 (1981) ...

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