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District of Columbia v. Jones

March 29, 2007


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA7619-02) (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Associate Judge

Argued November 17, 2006

Before FARRELL, RUIZ, and FISHER, Associate Judges.

Marc Jones sued Anthony Williams, who was then the Mayor of the District of Columbia, alleging defamation and related torts. Ruling on the District of Columbia's motion to dismiss, the Superior Court rejected the Mayor's claim of absolute immunity, and this interlocutory appeal followed.*fn1

The trial court denied the motion, concluding that it needed additional information which might be disclosed during discovery. Mayor Williams contends this was error because the facts alleged in the complaint demonstrate that absolute immunity applies, and subjecting him to the burdens of discovery and additional litigation would defeat the purposes served by the immunity doctrine. We agree and order dismissal of the complaint.

I. The Factual and Procedural Background

Marc Jones served as Mayor Williams' Deputy Chief of Staff from April 2000 through early 2001, and fund-raising was one of his responsibilities. According to Jones's complaint, in early 2001 various news organizations began to question the fund-raising activities of the Mayor's Executive Office. In response to this scrutiny, the complaint alleges, Mayor Williams placed Jones on administrative leave and told the media that he had done so because Jones was involved in improper fund-raising. In September 2001 Jones was terminated from his position. He claims that Mayor Williams thereafter made numerous remarks placing primary responsibility on Jones for any wrongdoing.Jones also claims that the Mayor falsely denied knowing of these activities.

Jones quotes two of the Mayor's statements in his complaint. On January 10, 2002, Mayor Williams allegedly stated, "It is clear to me that former members of my staff made serious mistakes . . . . These mistakes happened on my watch. These mistakes represent, as far as I am concerned, a failure of delegation in a number [of] different ways and an abysmal management control environment in this area." The second statement was made when The Washington Post informed Mayor Williams of Jones's assertion that the Mayor knew all about the fund-raising activities. Mayor Williams responded, "I d not know the details at the level that [Jones is] talking about." Jones seems primarily to complain that the Mayor falsely denied knowing of his activities and made those false allegations "to protect himself politically at the known expense of [Jones's] reputation, character, and integrity."*fn2

In August 2002 Jones filed suit, alleging that the Mayor's statements were false and malicious. Jones sought recovery for defamation, invasion of privacy (false light), and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Mayor Williams filed a Rule 12 (b)(6) motion, and the Superior Court dismissed the suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Jones appealed, and the Mayor agreed that this had not been a proper ground for dismissal. He argued, however, that the order of dismissal should be affirmed on the alternative ground that he had absolute immunity from the suit. This court declined to rule on absolute immunity in the first instance, and we remanded for further proceedings. Jones v. Williams, 861 A.2d 1269, 1270 (D.C. 2004), as amended by 890 A.2d 178 (D.C. 2005).

On remand, the Superior Court helpfully clarified the issues that are now before us. "[Jones] is not alleging that the Mayor had no right to strip him of his job responsibilities or, ultimately, to fire him."*fn3 Rather, he is "alleging that the Mayor, for private reasons and for personal gain, knowingly lied about him and continued to lie after [Jones] was no longer a government employee." The court acknowledged that "[t]he prejudice to the Mayor and the office of the Mayor [will be] particularly strong if, in the end, [Jones] has no case at all when tested against [the Mayor's] inevitable motion for summary judgment."Nevertheless, the court concluded, "resolution of [the Mayor's] legal arguments must await discovery and a motion for summary judgment filed after the close of discovery."

In this court appellant Williams renews his argument that he is absolutely immune from this suit alleging common law torts. He contends that subjecting him to the burden of discovery and other litigation procedures would interfere needlessly and impermissibly with the functioning of the Mayor's office and the District of Columbia government.*fn4 He also argues that absolute immunity applies regardless of the motives that prompted the allegedly tortious statements. Jones counters that absolute immunity does not apply because the actions at issue were outside the scope of Mayor Williams' official duties. He asserts that the statements "were completely self-serving and personal and were made exclusively for the purpose of advancing [the Mayor's] political career."

II. The Doctrine of Absolute Immunity

The law recognizes the doctrine of absolute immunity in order to serve the public interest in effective government. "The provision of immunity rests on the view that the threat of liability will make . . . officials unduly timid in carrying out their official duties, and that effective government will be promoted if officials are freed of the costs of vexatious and often frivolous damages suits." Westfall v. Erwin, 484 U.S. 292, 295 (1988).*fn5 As the Supreme Court explained in Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564, 571 (1959):

[O]fficials of government should be free to exercise their duties unembarrassed by the fear of damage suits in respect of acts done in the course of those duties -- suits which would consume time and energies which would otherwise be devoted to governmental service and the threat of which might appreciably ...

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