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Vanzant v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

June 3, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document No. 27




This matter comes before the court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff, Robert Vanzant, alleges that his supervisor, defendant James Schreck, intentionally struck him on the head during a meeting during which the defendant hollered, cursed and behaved belligerently towards him. Schreck characterizes the contact as a jocular tap on the back of the head. The plaintiff holds their mutual employer, defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA"), jointly liable for Schreck's action. His four-count complaint claims assault, negligent hiring and supervision, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and seeks both compensatory and punitive damages. The defendants argue that the court should dismiss the case because: (1) § 80 of the WMATA Compact, D.C. Code § 9-1107.01, bars suits against defendant Schreck for any torts committed in the course of his employment; (2) the District of Columbia's Workers' Compensation Act ("WCA"), D.C. Code § 32-1501 et seq., provides the exclusive remedy for the plaintiff's injuries; (3) WMATA possesses immunity from claims of negligent supervision or hiring; (4) the plaintiff's emotional distress claims fail as a matter of law; and (5) punitive damages are forbidden against a municipality. The plaintiff claims that Schreck's outrageous conduct falls outside the scope of worker's compensation law, entitling the plaintiff to bring a suit for punitive damages against him and his employer. Because there is, in fact, no substantial question as to whether the WCA bars the plaintiff's claims (it does), the court grants the defendants' motion for summary judgment.


Except as indicated, the facts are undisputed. The plaintiff is an employee of WMATA in the Office of Accounting. Compl. ¶¶ 7-8. At the time of the events in issue, defendant Schreck was the plaintiff's supervisor. Id. ¶ 5. On July 23, 2002, at the conclusion of a meeting in which the parties were conferring over a payroll discrepancy, Schreck slapped the plaintiff on the back of the head after he and the plaintiff realized that the plaintiff had pulled up the wrong pay period on his computer monitor. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Att. B, D. The plaintiff maintains that Schreck "forcibly struck" him, Compl. ¶ 9, delivering a "physical attack as punishment for his failure to follow his supervisor's instructions." Pl.'s Opp'n at 5. Schreck claims he only tapped the plaintiff on the back of the head and made a deprecatory comment in an attempt at light humor. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 1. Three other employees witnessed the event. Id., Att. A.

On November 13, 2002, Schreck filled out and submitted an Employer's First Report of Injury or Occupational Disease to the D.C. Office of Workers' Compensation. Id. at 2, Att. A. Schreck indicated that he first learned of the injury the day following the slap, after the plaintiff complained of head pain. Id., Att. A. The plaintiff admits that, on the advice of his lawyer, he did not pursue a worker's compensation remedy. Id., Att. C. The plaintiff alleges that during the incident Schreck was "inappropriately hollering, cursing and acting in a belligerent manner," had behaved so in previous encounters, was never reprimanded, and created an atmosphere of "fear, danger and tension." Compl. ¶¶ 12, 20, 22. The plaintiff further alleges that, as a result of the defendants' actions, he "sustained and continues to . . . sustain injuries including physical, emotional and financial injuries, a concussion, headaches, dizziness, memory problems, concentration problems, depression, nightmares, abdominal problems, severe emotional distress, loss of dignity, loss of earning capacity, loss of wages, medical bills and loss of income." Id. ¶ 63. He seeks five million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 11.


A. Legal Standard for a Motion for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Diamond v. Atwood, 43 F.3d 1538, 1540 (D.C. Cir. 1995). To determine which facts are "material," a court must look to the substantive law on which each claim rests. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A "genuine issue" is one whose resolution could establish an element of a claim or defense and, therefore, affect the outcome of the action. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that the nonmoving party "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the nonmoving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Id.

The nonmoving party may defeat summary judgment through factual representations made in a sworn affidavit if he "support[s] his allegations . . . with facts in the record," Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (quoting Harding v. Gray, 9 F.3d 150, 154 (D.C. Cir. 1993)), or provides "direct testimonial evidence," Arrington v. United States, 473 F.3d 329, 338 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Indeed, for the court to accept anything less "would defeat the central purpose of the summary judgment ...

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