United States District Court, D. Columbia
December 14, 2005.
JONATHAN E. VAKASSIAN, Plaintiff,
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY and POLLY L. HANSON, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN BATES, District Judge
Plaintiff Jonathan Vakassian has brought this action pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 against defendants Washington
Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") and Polly Hanson,
Chief of Police of the WMATA Police Department, in both her
official and individual capacity. Plaintiff is suing for damages
and costs stemming from his allegedly unlawful termination; he
also seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. Currently before
the Court is defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will
grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion to dismiss. BACKGROUND
Plaintiff is a former non-probationary WMATA Police Department
officer. Compl. at ¶ 5. On March 23, 2004, Hanson handed
plaintiff a written notice of termination for fourteen counts of
alleged administrative misconduct. Id. at ¶¶ 10, 31. The next
day, plaintiff filed a grievance with WMATA challenging the
"veracity" of the misconduct allegations and the "propriety of
his termination." Id. at ¶ 14.
Hanson met with representatives from plaintiff's union and then
denied plaintiff's grievance on May 7, 2004. Id. at ¶ 15. Five
days later, plaintiff filed a request for a trial board in order
to challenge his termination. Id. at ¶ 16. According to the
applicable collective bargaining agreement, plaintiff is entitled
to either a trial board proceeding or arbitration upon request.
Id. at ¶¶ 16, 17. Hanson denied plaintiff's request for a trial
board. Id. at ¶ 19. Plaintiff subsequently sent a letter
explaining the legal basis for his right to a trial board to
defendants' manager of Arbitration and Mediation Administration,
Matilda Broadnax. Id. at ¶¶ 20, 21. On July 7, 2004, Broadnax
informed defendant (on behalf of Hanson) that his termination
would not be rescinded and that a trial board would not be
granted. Id. at ¶ 24. Plaintiff again petitioned Broadnax for a
trial board on December 9, 2004, but was denied. Id. at ¶¶ 25,
Plaintiff filed the instant action on April 12, 2005. Count I
of the complaint alleges an unconstitutional deprivation of
procedural due process that occurred when defendants terminated
plaintiff without holding a pre-termination hearing. Count II
alleges an unconstitutional deprivation of procedural due process
stemming from defendants' refusal to provide plaintiff with a
post-termination trial board upon request. Count III alleges a
deprivation of plaintiff's liberty interest because defendants'
actions have precluded plaintiff from obtaining employment in law enforcement. Finally, Count IV is a claim for breach of
contract that allegedly occurred when defendants refused to grant
a trial board pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining
agreement. Plaintiff brings all four counts against WMATA and
Hanson. Hanson is sued in both her official and personal
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) will
not be granted unless "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff
can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would
entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46
(1957); see also Haynesworth v. Miller, 820 F.2d 1245, 1254
(D.C. Cir. 1987). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require
only that a complaint contain "`a short and plain statement of
the claim' that will give the defendant fair notice of what the
plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Dura
Pharms., Inc. v. Broudo, 125 S. Ct. 1627, 1634 (2005) (quoting
Conley, 355 U.S. at 47)). "Given the Federal Rules' simplified
standard for pleading, `[a] court may dismiss a complaint only if
it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of
facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.'"
Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002) (quoting
Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)).
Under Rule 12(b)(6), the plaintiff's factual allegations must
be presumed true and should be liberally construed in his or her
favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant Cty. Narcotics and Coordination
Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993); Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons,
591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C. Cir. 1979). The plaintiff must be given
every favorable inference that is supported by the allegations of
fact. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); Sparrow v.
United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). Conclusory legal and factual
allegations, however, need not be considered by the court. Domen
v. Nat'l Rehab. Hosp., 925 F. Supp. 830, 837 (D.D.C. 1996)
(citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).
The Court must first evaluate the extent to which sovereign
immunity shields the defendants from plaintiff's claims. The
Eleventh Amendment, as interpreted, bars suits against state
governments by citizens. Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 712-13
(1999). There are three general exceptions, all of which are
invoked in this case: "suits against state officers for
injunctive relief or money damages; suits based on consent to
federal court jurisdiction; and suits pursuant to congressional
statutes, especially pursuant to civil rights laws." Erwin
Chemerinsky, FEDERAL JURISDICTION 409 (4th ed. 2003).
The court will address sovereign immunity first in connection
with the claims against WMATA, and then will proceed to discuss
the doctrine's applicability to the claims against Hanson in her
official and individual capacities, respectively.
I. Sovereign Immunity of WMATA
Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the Eleventh
Amendment shields states from suits brought by citizens. Will v.
Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65-66 (1989). WMATA is
the product of an interstate compact between Maryland, Virginia
and the District of Columbia and thus shares the sovereign
immunity of those states. Barbour v. WMATA, 374 F.3d 1161, 1163
(D.C. Cir. 2004) (stating that "WMATA shares the sovereign
immunity of its state sponsors"); see Hedgepeth v. WMATA, 386 F.3d 1148, 1152
n. 3 (D.C. Cir. 2004).*fn1 Moreover, this Circuit has held
that "decisions concerning the hiring, training, and supervising
of WMATA employees are discretionary in nature, and thus immune
from judicial review." Burkhart v. WMATA, 112 F.3d 1207, 1216
(D.C. Cir. 1997). The Court therefore dismisses the claims
brought against WMATA in Counts I, II and III.
WMATA is not immune, however, with respect to the contract
claim brought under Count IV because Burkhart extends sovereign
immunity to WMATA only for certain tortious conduct, not for
contract claims. See Martin v. WMATA, 273 F. Supp. 2d 114,
118 n. 2 (D.D.C. 2003). "Section 80 of the compact [between
Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia creating WMATA]
waives WMATA's sovereign immunity for contractual disputes."
Beebe v. WMATA, 129 F.3d 1283, 1289 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Section
80 states in pertinent part:
The Authority shall be liable for its contracts . . .
The exclusive remedy for such breach of contracts . . .
for which the Authority shall be liable, as herein
provided, shall be by suit against the authority.
Defendant submits that plaintiff's claim under Count IV is really
a disguised wrongful termination claim, and that it is immune
from suit because section 80 and Burkhart do not abrogate
sovereign immunity as to tort claims. Specifically, section 80
provides that "[t]he Authority . . . shall not be liable for any
torts occurring in the performance of a governmental function."
But the law allows plaintiffs to be the "masters of their cases";
so long as a claim is properly colorable under the law, the
plaintiff may choose to pursue it, even though the defendant may believe that a different legal avenue is more appropriate.
Defendant may not, at its whim, convert plaintiff's breach of
contract claim into a claim that sounds in tort, and then assert
that sovereign immunity precludes that tort claim. As a
third-party beneficiary to the collective bargaining agreement,
plaintiff is entitled to pursue a legal remedy for WMATA's
alleged breach of that contract. See Nortel Networks, Inc. v.
Gold & Appel Transfer, S.A., 298 F. Supp. 2d 81
, 89-90 (D.D.C.
2004). Because WMATA's sovereign immunity is abrogated under
section 80 of the compact with respect to contract claims, Count
IV will not be dismissed at this juncture on grounds of sovereign
II. Claims Against Hanson in Her Official Capacity
42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a cause of action against any person
or official who, acting under the color of law, deprives another
person of rights under the federal Constitution or statutes.
Section 1983 states in pertinent part:
Every person who, under the color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom or usage of any State
or Territory or the District of Columbia subjects or
causes to be subjected any citizen of the United
States or other person within the jurisdiction
thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges,
or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws,
shall be liable to the party injured in an action at
law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for
redress . . .
Suits against government officials in their official capacities
"generally represent only another way of pleading an action
against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Kentucky v.
Graham, 473 U.S. 159
, 165 (1985) (quoting Monell v. New York
City Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658
, 690 n. 55 (1978)). A
distinction must be drawn, however, between official capacity
suits seeking to recover damages, which are barred by sovereign
immunity, and claims for prospective injunctive relief, which are
permitted. The claims for damages against Hanson in her official capacity
are barred because any reward will be paid from the state
treasury. If a damages award must be disbursed from government
coffers, the suit "is no different than a suit against the State
itself"; here, it is essentially a suit against the office of the
chief of WMATA police. Will, 491 U.S. at 71; see also
Graham, 473 U.S. at 166 (stating that "a plaintiff seeking to
recover on a damages judgment in an official-capacity suit must
look to the government entity itself"). Therefore, the Court
dismisses plaintiff's claims for damages brought against Hanson
in her official capacity under Counts I, II and III.
Plaintiff's request for injunctive relief, however, is not
similarly barred. As the Supreme Court has acknowledged, "a state
official in his or her official capacity, when sued for
injunctive relief, would be a person under § 1983 because
`official capacity-actions for prospective relief are not treated
as actions against the State.'" Will, 491 U.S. at 71 n. 10
(quoting Graham, 473 U.S. at 167); see Ex Parte Young,
209 U.S. 123, 159-60 (1908); Hedgepeth, 386 F.3d at 1152 n. 3
(recognizing immunity for tort claims against WMATA but allowing
claims for injunctive relief against WMATA's General Manager in
his official capacity). Hence, plaintiff's request for injunctive
relief against Hanson in her official capacity under Counts I, II
and III will not be dismissed.
Finally, there is no remedy against Hanson in her official
capacity under Count IV, the breach of contract claim. The waiver
of immunity in section 80 provides that the "exclusive remedy"
for contract claims "shall be by suit against the authority."
See Beebe, 129 F.3d at 1288 (emphasis added). Thus, a claim
for breach of contract may only be brought against WMATA itself,
not one of its employees. Therefore, the Court dismisses Count IV
as it pertains to Hanson in her official capacity. III. Claims Against Hanson in Her Personal Capacity
Turning now to the claims against Hanson for damages in her
personal capacity under Counts I, II and III, it is well-settled
that the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects only state
treasuries, and does not bar suits for damages against state
officers in their personal capacities. See Graham,
473 U.S. at 167. Although defendants concede that this is the applicable
rule, see Def. Reply at 3, they argue that the sole damages
remedy available to plaintiff is back pay, which is recoverable
only from the state treasury and, accordingly, barred by
sovereign immunity. Plaintiff agrees in part. Pl. Opp'n. at 13
(stating that "Vakassian acknowledges that there is no theory
which could render Hanson individually liable for his backpay").
Therefore, the Court dismisses Counts I, II and III against
Hanson in her personal capacity for backpay and benefits. But a
claim for damages other than backpay and benefits may be brought
against Hanson in her personal capacity under Counts I, II and
III, and hence will not be dismissed at this time based on
defendants theory of sovereign immunity.
As a final note, plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief
against Hanson in her personal capacity might not be barred, but
it is redundant given that the injunction is properly brought
against Hanson in her official capacity. See Doe v. Israel,
___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2005 WL 3037142, 9 (D.D.C. Nov. 10, 2005)
(noting that it is appropriate to consider whether actions
against individual government officers in their personal
capacities are merely "disguised actions against the sovereign")
(quoting Park v. Shin, 313 F.3d 1138, 1144 (9th Cir. 2002)).
Hanson can grant a trial board in her personal capacity no more
than any average citizen. It is only in her role as chief of
police that this may be accomplished. Furthermore, just as section 80 of the compact bars the
contract claims against Hanson in her official capacity, it
likewise bars the same claim against her in her personal
capacity. Hence, Count IV is dismissed against Hanson in her
personal capacity as well.
IV. Attorney's Fees
Plaintiff also seeks damages in the form of attorney's fees and
costs. 42 U.S.C. § 1988 limits the award of attorney's fees in
civil rights cases to a "prevailing party." A party is considered
to have prevailed only if it has "established entitlement to some
relief on the merits of [its] claims, in the trial court or on
appeal." Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 757 (1980). The
Supreme Court later elaborated in Hensley v. Eckerhart,
461 U.S. 424 (1983), that a plaintiff is a prevailing party only if
he succeeds on "any significant issue . . . which achieves some
of the benefit that the parties sought in bringing suit." Id.
In the present case, in order to be a prevailing party,
plaintiff would have to secure a judgment establishing that his
procedural due process rights had been violated and an injunction
or award of damages that would achieve at least some of the
remedy sought. See, e.g., Fast v. School Dist. of Ladue,
728 F.2d 1030, 1033-34 (8th Cir. 1984) (holding that plaintiff
was a "prevailing party" because the district court ruled that
her procedural due process rights had been violated when she was
denied a post-termination hearing and issued an injunction
granting her a hearing). This Court has only determined that some
of plaintiff's claims should not be dismissed at this juncture.
If the ultimate result of litigation concerning those claims
renders plaintiff a "prevailing party" under § 1988, then plaintiff may be entitled to recover attorney's
fees.*fn2 But not yet. Thus, the Court will deny, but not
dismiss, plaintiff's claims for such a remedy at this time.
The Court finds that WMATA is immune under Counts I, II and
III, but not under Count IV. Hanson is immune in her official
capacity as to Counts I, II and III with respect to damages, but
not prospective injunctive relief. Moreover, Hanson is completely
immune as to Count IV in both her official and personal capacity.
In her personal capacity, however, Hanson may be sued for damages
under Counts I, II, and III. All claims as to which a defendant
is immune will be dismissed. A separate order is issued on this
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