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Adams v. Vertex

March 29, 2007

DEMETRIUS A. ADAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
VERTEX, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Demetrius Adams, a Black construction worker, brings this action against Defendant Vertex, Inc. ("Vertex"), alleging violations of his civil rights under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"), and negligent supervision. Before the court is Vertex's motion for summary judgment [#67]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the court concludes that the motion must be granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The alleged facts are as follows: At the time of the events pertinent to this suit, Adams, a resident of Maryland,worked for Steele Foundations, Inc. ("Steele"), performing sheet and shorn steel work on various construction projects. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 8. Vertex, whose principal place of business is in Washington, D.C., sub-contracted to assist Hitt Contracting, Inc. ("Hitt"), with a government construction project in the District of Columbia, the South Capitol Power Plant Project ("Project"). Id. ¶¶ 10--12; Def's Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot.") at 4. Steele also sub-contracted to work on the Project for Hitt.*fn1 Am. Compl. ¶ 10.

When Vertex's employees began working on the Project in October 2003, two of them, identified only as a foreman named John and John's supervisor, Sam, began making racially derogatory comments at Adams's workplace. Id. ¶¶ 12--14. Following a meeting in Hitt's work trailer, John told Adams to "come over to his farm and see all the animals on the farm" and stated that "all of them were black." Id. ¶ 17. Adams inferred from this comment that John believed that all African-Americans were animals and that John compared him to an animal. Id. ¶ 18. On another occasion John called Adams "nigger boy" and "spook." Id. ¶ 20.

On June 9, 2004, Adams entered Hitt's main office at the project site and saw a picture of a Black man with a noose around his neck drawn on a board. Id. ¶¶ 24, 26. Written below the picturewas a caption that read: "To Niggerboy Tony: The next lynching will be a member of your family."*fn2 Id. ¶ 26. Adams immediately reported the drawing to his supervisor, Ronald Steele, who did nothing about the picture. Id. ¶ 27.

On June 10, 2004, Adams followed instructions to go to Vertex's trailer (in which two Vertex employees, Mike and Mayberry, and an employee named John from another company were present) to pick up an invoice for a tool Adams previously repaired.*fn3 Id. ¶¶ 28--29. There, Adams found an invoice addressed to "NIGGER TONY, 31 Ghetto Blvd (first tree on the right), APE Village, DC 1 800 Colored Boy." Id. ¶ 30. The customer information on the invoice read, "DAVID DUKE, 1 Nathan Bedford Blvd," and the caption on the invoice stated: "Picked mango trees and banana trees for lunch food for the fellow cotton pickers. Id. at ¶ 32. Will distribute at the next public lynching in front of building KKK." Id. Simultaneously, Adams saw a depiction of a lynching on a computer monitor. Id. ¶ 33. He then contacted Vertex's owner to view the invoice, and the owner requested a copy of the document in "a malicious and joking manner." Id. ¶¶ 34--35.

On June 14, 2004, Adams "had to enter a hole and cut the steel on top of the tunnel," and "every time that [Adams] came up from the tunnel," he saw Sam standing nearby, laughing. Id. ¶ 45. Because Sam had no reason to be in Adams's work area, Adams grew suspicious and concerned for his well-being. Id. Around the same time, Adams met with a supervisor, Mr. Keagan, the head of the Project, and Chuck, Mr. Keagan's assistant, to discuss the discriminatory incidents. Id. ¶¶ 51--52. During this meeting, Mr. Keagan and Chuck assured Adams that they would contact Hitt's main manager regarding the invoice and the drawing, and that they would fire the men responsible for the discriminatory acts. Id. ¶¶ 53--54.

On June 15, 2004, Adams arrived at work and saw Sam's vehicle parked in Adams's usual parking area. Id. ¶ 55. Adams "grew extremely suspicious" of the situation and decided to drive to another side of the construction project. Id. ¶¶ 55, 57. As Adams drove away from the work site, he noticed John's vehicle following him. Id. ¶¶ 57--59. Adams then contacted a police officer and spoke with Sergeant De Palma, who informed him that some Vertex employees would be required to leave the job site until further notice due to Adams's complaints. Id. ¶ 62. Early in the morning on June 17, 2004, Adams heard his wife's car alarm go off, and after inspecting his vehicle, he contacted the police department about this "abnormal event." Id. ¶¶ 79--80. Adams and his wife also each received phone calls during the day only to have the caller(s) hang up without speaking. Id. ¶¶ 95, 97--98. In addition, Adams received death threats and his wife's tires were slashed. Pl.'s Opp'n to Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 21. Adams later discovered that someone had gone to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his home address. Id. As a consequence of these events, Adams has suffered extreme anguish. Am. Compl. ¶ 101.

II. ANALYSIS

Vertex moves for summary judgment on several grounds.*fn4 The crux of Adams's opposition to Vertex's motion is that Vertex may be held liable for the tortious acts of its employees simply by virtue of its status as the employer of these persons. The caption of a section of the memorandum of points and authorities Adams presents states: "DEFENDANT VERTEX EMPLOYED THE PERSONS RESONSIBLE (sic) FOR HARASSING PLAINTIFF BASED ON HIS RACT (sic) AND IS THUS LIABLE FOR THE ACTIONS OF ITS EMPLOYEES." Pl.'s Opp'n at 7 (emphasis supplied). Adams goes on to argue that "[d]efendant Vertex was responsible for resolving all workplace issues involving its own employees, which would logically include any issues that Plaintiff experienced with Defendant Vertex's employees." Id. at 7--8. Adams is incorrect and cites no authority to support his argument because there is none.

An employer cannot be held liable for the wrongdoing of her employees merely because of her status as an employer. She may be liable for the conduct of her employees, however, under certain circumstances. One such circumstance is when an employer fails to exercise reasonable care in supervising her employees. Also, there are times when the employer may be held vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of her employees. These possible causes of action, which are clumsily encompassed within Adams's broad-brush assertions, will be addressed in turn.

A. Negligent Supervision

As noted, Vertex may be liable to Adams if it negligently supervised its employees. Vertex makes two arguments. First, Vertex argues that Adams's negligent supervision claim must fail because it owed no duty to Adams. According to Vertex, there existed no common law duty to protect Adams from the discriminatory conduct of its employees. Def.'s Mot. at 14. This argument cannot be sustained.

Vertex mischaracterizes the duty obligation pertinent to a negligent supervision claim. A party claiming "negligent supervision does not seek recovery under a theory of respondeat superior [because] it is an allegation of direct negligence." Mitchell v. DCX, Inc., 274 F. Supp. 2d 33, 50 (D.D.C. 2003) (citing Brown v. Argenbright Sec., Inc., 782 A.2d 752, 759--60 (D.C. 2001)). An employer has a duty to use reasonable care when she hires and retains employees who come into contact with others as a direct result of their employment. Fleming v. Bronfin, 80 A.2d 915, 917 (D.C. 1951). If the employer breaches this duty and an employee, in the performance of a duty, injures a third party, that employer may be liable. Id.; see also Phelan v. City of Mount Rainier, 805 A.2d 930, 937 (D.C. 2002). Because Vertex's employees interacted with Adams at the worksite as a direct result of their employment, Vertex did owe a duty to Adams to use reasonable care in the supervision of its employees.

Vertex next asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment because the acts of its employees about which Adams complains were unforeseeable. Vertex points out that all of the alleged offending conduct occurred "over a period of a few days." Def.'s Mot. at 15. Essentially, Vertex's argument is that it had no actual or ...


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