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United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton, United States District Judge


Plaintiff is a District of Columbia prisoner incarcerated at the Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton, North Carolina. In this diversity action that has been brought by plaintiff who is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, plaintiff is suing his former employer, the law firm of Shaw Pittman Potts and Trowbridge ("Shaw Pittman"), one of its law partners, Michael R. Hatcher, and a limited liability corporation, Kastle Systems, Inc. ("Kastle"), for monetary damages exceeding $8 million. The complaint lists nine causes of action, but the following two claims predominate: (1) Count I — Negligence and (2) Count II — Defamation.*fn1 Defendant Shaw Pittman has moved to dismiss the complaint in its entirety under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) on the grounds of absolute immunity, collateral estoppel, non-compliance with the applicable statute of limitations and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.*fn2 Having considered the parties' submissions and the entire record, the Court will grant the motion and dismiss the complaint on the grounds of absolute immunity and collateral estoppel.*fn3

The complaint arises from plaintiff's criminal prosecution and conviction following a jury trial, for fraud and theft-related offenses. See Defendant Shaw Pittman's Motion to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mot."), Exhibit A (United States v. Hinton, No. 00-3068, 2001 U.S. App. Lexis 13899, at *2 (D.C. Cir. May 25, 2001) ("Hinton"). Plaintiff alleges that defendants were negligent in failing to deactivate a "blue electromagnetic kastle key . . . [he] returned and surrendered to his supervisor [Hatcher] at Shaw Pittman upon his resignation . . . on December 12, 1997. Complaint ¶ 7. He claims that as a result of defendants' omission, he has "been the victim of `identity theft and fraud' and malicious prosecution and [criminal] conviction[s]. . . ." Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Hatcher "publicly disclosed false information and disseminated erroneous, false and inaccurate statements under oath to [Judge] Ricardo M. Urbina . . ." and other individuals. Id. ¶ 20. Plaintiff also alleges that Hatcher "further defamed [him] by making false and malicious statements to various third parties as forementioned . . ., id. ¶ 22, but he has not indicated, and the record does not suggest, that the alleged defamation occurred outside of the judicial proceedings.

Plaintiff does not accuse Kastle of any wrongdoing in his complaint. In his opposition to Shaw Pittman's motion to dismiss, plaintiff states that Kastle's vice-president "stated under oath" that he was never "notified . . . [about] the circumstances of the plaintiff's loss/stolen and returned kastle key. . . ." Pl.'s Opp. at 6. He seeks to hold Kastle liable only "in conjunction to Shaw Pittman Potts & Trowbridge, and Michael R. Hunter, Esq., who were the responsible parties to take all prequisite [sic] actions with the authority vested to them in seeing that the plaintiff's . . . access/entry devices `blue electromagnetic kastle key(s)' were properly and timely de-activated. . . ." Pl.'s Opp. at 6. Thus, plaintiff does not state a legal claim against this defendant. The Court therefore will dismiss the complaint against Kastle, on the ground that it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See supra n. 3. Under District of Columbia law, which controls this diversity action,*fn4 the judicial testimony of witnesses is absolutely privileged. See Brown v. Collins, 402 F.2d 209, 212-13 (D.C. Cir. 1968) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 587)). In Sturdivant v. Seaboard Service System, Ltd., the District of Columbia Court of Appeals extended to witnesses the "well settled [law] that a defamation action may not be grounded `on a party's statements preliminary to or in the course of a judicial proceeding so long as the defamatory matter has some relation . . . to the proceedings." 459 A.2d 1058, 1059 (D.C. 1983) (quoting Brown v. Collins, 402 F.2d at 212); see also accord Gray v. Poole, 275 F.3d 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (government official entitled to absolute immunity from a lawsuit filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for testimony given in District of Columbia Superior Court). Moreover, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that "the common law provided absolute immunity from subsequent damages liability for all persons — governmental or otherwise — who were integral parts of the judicial process." Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 335 (1983). Here, the immunity privilege extends to Hatcher and his law firm. See Sturdivant, 459 A.2d at 1060 (citing General Motors Corporation v. Mendicki, 367 F.2d 66, 70 (10th Cir. 1966)) (the "unqualified privilege" protects the employer of testifying employee). The defamation claim must therefore be dismissed.

As for the remaining claims, see supra at 1 & n. 1, defendant argues that plaintiff is estopped from relitigating the facts that supported his conviction because they served as the basis for his criminal conviction. Collateral estoppel, or claims preclusion, bars the relitigation of issues previously tried and decided in a court of competent jurisdiction involving the same or different parties. See Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 443-44 (1970) (collateral estoppel "means simply that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit."); accord Yamaha Corporation of America v. United States, 961 F.2d 245, 254 (D.C. Cir. 1992); see also United States v. Mendoza, 464 U.S. 154, 158-59 (1984) (acknowledging the "broadened [] scope of the doctrine of collateral estoppel beyond its common law limits . . . by abandoning the requirement of mutuality of parties. . . .") (citations omitted). "A criminal conviction is conclusive proof and operates as an estoppel on the defendants as to the facts supporting the conviction in a subsequent civil action." United States v. Uzzell, 648 F. Supp. 1362, 1363 (D.D.C. 1986) (citing Local 167 of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Stablemen & Helpers of America v. United States, 291 U.S. 293, 298-99 (1934)) (other citation omitted).

Plaintiff attaches to his opposition what appears to be a portion of the criminal indictment and portions of the transcript of some part of his criminal proceedings.*fn5 The content of the indictment includes the fact that plaintiff was issued an electronic pass key and that as part of a "scheme and artifice . . ." after his departure from Shaw Pittman, plaintiff "repeatedly entered the offices of Shaw Pittman without authorization using his previously issued electronic pass key." Pl.'s Opp., Exhibit E. The transcript shows that the circumstances surrounding plaintiff's return of the key card and the putative deactivation of the key card were litigated during the criminal proceeding. On direct appeal of plaintiff's conviction, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found the evidence against plaintiff "overwhelming." Hinton, at *2. Among the evidence the court referenced was the fact that "a security card issued to Hinton was used to enter Shaw Pittman on several occasions during non-business hours after Hinton had ceased working at the firm." Id. The facts plaintiff seeks to litigate in this action were essential to his conviction because the jury had to find that plaintiff was responsible for the unauthorized use of the key card that had been issued to him, which was an essential part of the evidence used to convict plaintiff of the indicted charges. The Court therefore finds that plaintiff is collaterally estopped from litigating these same facts anew.

For the reasons stated above, the Court will grant defendant Shaw Pittman's Motion to Dismiss. The Court finds the basis for dismissal equally applicable to defendant Hatcher, and further finds that plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted with respect to defendant Kastle. The Court therefore will dismiss the complaint in its entirety.*fn6


For the reasons stated in the accompanying Memorandum Opinion, it is

ORDERED that Shaw Pittman's Motion to Dismiss [#9] is GRANTED; it is further

ORDERED that plaintiff's motions for leave to file an amended complaint [## 16, 18] are DENIED; and it is further

ORDERED that this case is DISMISSED. This is a final appealable Order.

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