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Austin v. District of Columbia

May 11, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


This civil suit arises from plaintiff Nigel Austin's detention at the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") Central Cell Block on August 25, 2005. Austin, who had been arrested that morning and was being held at the Central Cell Block, alleges that MPD Officer Don Thomas struck him without provocation, delivering a blow that broke his jaw. According to Austin, Thomas and the other MPD officers present were aware of his injuries but failed to secure medical care for him in a timely manner. The six-count complaint asserts that Thomas violated Austin's constitutional rights and that Thomas and his employer, the District of Columbia ("the District"), committed various torts under District of Columbia law. Pending before the Court at this time are motions for partial summary judgment filed by the District and Officer Thomas, and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment filed by plaintiff Austin. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the District's motion, grant in part and deny in part Thomas's motion, and deny plaintiff's cross-motion.


The parties agree on the general factual chronology, but vigorously dispute many of the relevant details.*fn1 Plaintiff Austin was arrested by MPD officers on August 25, 2005, two days before his twentieth birthday. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 1; Thomas Stmt. ¶ 1. The arresting officers transported Austin first to the Seventh District police station, where he was processed, fingerprinted, and photographed. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 1 (Austin Depo.) at 37-38. He was then taken to the Central Cell Block at 12:15 p.m., shortly before Officer Thomas commenced his 1:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. shift. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 2, 3. The Central Cell Block was understaffed at that time. Thomas Stmt. ¶ 3; Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 2 (Thomas Depo.) at 55. At approximately 1:45 p.m., Officer Thomas retrieved Austin from a holding cell to bring him to a processing room in which he would receive an identifying armband. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 4; Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 2 at 48. Thomas temporarily left Austin in an adjacent interview room, where Austin overheard one of the MPD officers inform another person that the detainees would not be brought to court that day and would therefore have to spend the night in jail. Thomas Stmt. ¶ 3; Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 1, 55-57. Austin became upset and shouted out loud, "take me back to my mother fucking cell." Thomas Stmt. ¶ 3; Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 1 at 60-61.

The parties' accounts of what transpired next diverge substantially. According to Austin, Officer Thomas approached him and asked him to repeat the demand that he had just made. Pl.'s Opp'n Stmt. ¶ 6. When Austin did so, Thomas allegedly swung at him, striking Austin with a closed right fist on the left side of his face. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 1 at 63. The blow caused Austin to fall down steps that were behind him. Id. At that point, MPD Officers Rhonda Crowder and George Hawkins assisted Thomas in subduing Austin by pulling his hands behind his back and placing handcuffs on him. Id. at 64. Officers Thomas, Crowder, and Hawkins all observed blood on the floor at the spot where Austin had been subdued and, once he rose from the floor, Crowder and Hawkins also observed blood on his light-colored shirt. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 2 at 124; id., Exh. 3 (Crowder Depo.) at 102, 106; id., Exh. 4 (Hawkins Depo.) at 27. Austin maintains that he was still handcuffed - - and remained so throughout the day - - and that Officer Thomas dragged him into a cell and told him, "your ass [is] in here for the night." Id., Exh. 1 at 63, 67. Once in the cell, Austin allegedly began to complain about his pain and requested medical attention. He claims to have told Officer Thomas that he believed his jaw was broken, to which Thomas supposedly responded, "if you can talk, then your jaw is not broken."

Id. at 69.

Officer Thomas paints a strikingly different picture of the events. In his version, after demanding to be returned to his cell, Austin repeatedly stepped out of the interview room in which he was located at that time. Thomas Stmt. ¶ 3. When Austin stepped out again and made a move toward the exit from the room, Thomas believed that he was trying to escape. Id. ¶ 4; Thomas Mem., Exh. 3 (Thomas Depo.) at 92. Thomas followed Austin and grabbed his arm in order to secure him. Id. at 94-95. Austin then allegedly turned and swung at Thomas, who swung back with his right arm, striking Austin in the face. Thomas Stmt. ¶ 5. According to Thomas, Austin was not dragged back to a cell; rather, he walked to the cell assisted by Thomas and Hawkins, each of whom supported one of his arms. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 3 at 122. Nor, Thomas says, did Austin tell him that his jaw was broken. Id. at 125-126. But Thomas does recall that Austin requested medical treatment shortly after being placed in the cell. Thomas insists that he referred the request to Officer Hawkins, who was the acting commander for that shift. Id. at 126-27; Thomas Stmt. ¶ 6. Hawkins then contacted a dispatcher and filled out a required form (a "PD 313") so that Austin could be transported to the hospital. Thomas Mem., Exh. 4 at 32-33. After placing Austin in the cell, Thomas insists, he had no further interaction with Austin. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 3 at 142.

Whichever version of the events is to be believed, the parties generally agree that the requested medical attention was slow in coming. Austin remained at first in the cell to which he had been brought after the punch. Approximately two hours later, Officer Hawkins walked him over to a second cell, where he fell asleep for a period of time. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 1 at 71. Austin maintains that, while he was awake, he continually complained of his pain and requested medical treatment. Id. Hawkins placed a second phone call requesting transport for Austin at approximately 7:30 p.m. Thomas Stmt. ¶ 8; Thomas Mem., Exh. 4 at 32-33; D.C. Opp'n, Exh. (Hawkins Depo.) at 74. Police officers from the Seventh District finally arrived to transport Austin to the hospital shortly after 8:00 p.m. Hospital records show that a triage nurse attended to Austin at 8:30 p.m. Thomas Mem., Exh. 6 (Initial Assessment). Subsequent tests confirmed that Austin had suffered a broken jaw. Pl.'s Thomas Opp'n, Exh. 6 (Emergency Physician Record). Austin allegedly underwent surgery two days after the incident, and his jaw was wired shut for a month and a half. Compl. ¶¶ 26, 30.

Less than three months after the incident, Austin filed a six-count complaint against the District of Columbia, Officer Thomas, and various unnamed MPD officers. Dkt. #1. Three counts (I, II, and VI) assert violations of District of Columbia common law and seek recovery in tort for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. The remaining three counts (III, IV, and V) allege that Officer Thomas violated Austin's constitutional rights by striking him without provocation, acting with deliberate indifference toward his medical needs, and conspiring with unnamed officers to deny or deprive him of medical care. The parties have engaged in protracted and often contentious discovery in advance of the trial, which is scheduled for July 2007. Presently before the Court are cross-motions for partial summary judgment that seek to narrow the scope of the issues to be tried at that time.


Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by "informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)).

In determining whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant fails to offer "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]." Id. at 252.


There are three motions for partial summary judgment now before the Court. Both Thomas and the District of Columbia seek summary judgment on one aspect of Austin's negligence claim, contending in essence that this claim is a restatement of the battery cause of action alleged in Count I and that such claims are barred under recent case law from the D.C. Court of Appeals. Officer Thomas has also interposed the defense of qualified immunity and seeks summary judgment on Counts IV and V of the Complaint, which allege that he acted with deliberate indifference to Austin's medical needs and conspired with other officers to deprive Austin of his constitutional right to adequate medical treatment. For his part, plaintiff Austin moves for summary judgment as to liability on the portion of his negligence cause of action that claims that the District of Columbia violated both national and local standards of care when it failed to secure immediate medical care for him. The three motions will be addressed in turn.

A. Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Count VI

Both the District and Officer Thomas seek partial summary judgment on the portion of Count VI of the Complaint alleging that Thomas violated local and national standards of care when he used more force against Austin than was reasonably necessary. Compl. ¶¶ 84-86, 89, 91. According to defendants, this portion of Count VI is, at bottom, the mirror image of the battery cause of action alleged in Count I and must therefore be dismissed under the D.C. Court of Appeals' decision in District of Columbia v. Chinn, 839 A.2d 701 (D.C. 2003). Defendants' motions force the Court to wade through an area of District of Columbia law that the D.C. Court of Appeals has repeatedly acknowledged is confusing - - namely, the circumstances under which an alleged victim of excessive force by District police officers can seek recovery under both ...

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