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Taylor v. Dist. of Columbia Water

September 25, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB2297-05) (Hon. Natalia M. Combs Greene, Trial Judge).

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

Argued March 4, 2008

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, REID, Associate Judge,and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

This case involves a complaint filed against the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority ("WASA"), Jerry Johnson, Barbara A. Grier, and James J. Shabelski (collectively "appellees") by Charles Taylor, appellant, alleging various causes of action. Mr. Taylor challenges the trial court's dismissal of his prima facie tort claim under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) and its denial of his motion to amend the complaint. He also asserts that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment in favor of WASA with respect to his battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and retaliation claims.

We affirm in part and reverse in part.


The record shows that on March 24, 2005, Mr. Taylor filed a complaint against appellees which contained four causes of action: (1) battery (Count I); (2) violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (Count II); (3) intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count III); and (4) prima facie tort (Count IV).*fn1 The complaint sets forth the following allegations. On March 25, 2004, at approximately 7:30 a.m., he and a co-worker, Abdus-Sartar Mulla, took the elevator to the fifth floor to get some coffee. As he was exiting the elevator, he saw Mr. Shabelski, a supervisor in the Design Department. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Mulla followed Mr. Shabelski through the door and into a workspace. "Mr. Shabelski turned around to face him, and blocked his path." Mr. Shabelski repeatedly blocked Mr. Taylor's path, and eventually asked him why he was on the fifth floor. Mr. Taylor explained that he was trying to get a cup of coffee. Mr. Shabelski said: "'We don't want you on this floor!,' and he pushed Mr. Taylor in the area of Mr. Taylor's throat." Mr. Shabelski "exchanged words with Mr. Taylor" and "pushed" him two more times. "Mr. Taylor loudly yelled at Mr. Shabelski to stop," and Mr. Shabelski called one of Mr. Taylor's co-workers who grabbed and pulled Mr. Taylor into the hallway, inquired about what had happened, and then advised Mr. Taylor to file a grievance. "Mr. Taylor was extremely upset" and "started to cry." He "had complained to WASA's management about Mr. Shabelski's behavior before, but the Defendant had never done anything about it."*fn2

Later, Mr. Taylor's supervisor took him to see Ms. Grier, the Director of Human Resources, and Mr. Ken Barnhart, WASA's General Counsel. Mr. Taylor repeated what had happened, and added that "he didn't know what he would do if Mr. Shabelski assaulted him again." Subsequently, Ms. Grier gave Mr. Taylor a letter and informed him that he was being placed on paid administrative leave. "The letter stated that WASA'has reasonable suspicion that you have made threats against an Authority employee....'"*fn3 Mr. Taylor's complaint further alleged that "WASA has engaged in a pattern and practice of disciplining non-management employees for disputes with supervisors," but had not taken action when supervisors were "clearly the aggressor." Consequently, "WASA has created an atmosphere in which its supervisory/management employees feel free to disrespect, abuse, and even assault and commit battery upon its non-management employees with impunity and without fear of any meaningful discipline or punishment." And, WASA's "actions were designed to punish Mr. Taylor and to retaliate against him for his role in bringing and continuing the class-action lawsuit against []WASA."*fn4

Defendants, appellees here, filed or joined in a motion to dismiss Mr. Taylor's complaint, which appellant opposed. In response, the trial court signed an order on December 6, 2005, dismissing Count IV of Mr. Taylor's complaint, the prima facie tort, on the ground that: "The Court cannot treat Count IV as a claim for failure to provide a safe workplace on some non-specific law."*fn5 On April 7, 2006, Mr. Taylor moved for leave to amend his complaint. The amendment reflected (1) a battery claim against WASA; (2) a claim for breach of duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace; and (3) a claim of racial discrimination under the DCHRA. He also sought an order permanently enjoining the defendants from any further retaliation against him. WASA filed its opposition on April 27, 2006, and on May 24, 2006, the court denied Mr. Taylor's motion to amend. The defendants moved for summary judgment on July 24, 2006; Mr. Taylor opposed the motion. By order dated November 9, 2006, the trial court granted the defendants' motion, essentially because Mr. Taylor "failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists."


The Prima Facie Tort Claim and the Motion for Leave to Amend

Mr. Taylor contends that the trial court erred by granting appellees' motion to dismiss Count IV of his complaint (prima facie tort) under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6), and abused its discretion by denying his motion for leave to amend his complaint to clarify his prima facie tort claim against WASA as one for breach of duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace. Our standard for reviewing a Rule 12 (b)(6) motion is a familiar one: "Dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is proper under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6)... only where it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief"; and we construe the complaint "in the light most favorable to the plaintiff..." and take its allegations as true.*fn6 Under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 8 (a), a plaintiff's complaint must "contain (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds upon which the Court's jurisdiction depends,... (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, and (3) a demand for judgment for the relief the pleader seeks."*fn7 Since this is a notice pleading jurisdiction,*fn8 we only require that plaintiff's statement of a claim "'give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds on which it rests.'"*fn9 "This simplified notice pleading standard relies on liberal discovery rules and summary judgment motions to define disputed facts and issues and to dispose of unmeritorious claims."*fn10

We are satisfied that Count IV states a claim for an established cause of action, and should not have been dismissed under Rule 12 (b)(6).*fn11 The trial judge may have focused on the heading, prima facie tort, and properly concluded that we have not recognized this tort in the District.*fn12 However, the prima facie tort is an intentional one,*fn13 and the substantive paragraphs of Count IV gave the defendants fair notice that Mr. Taylor was asserting a common law claim against WASA for breach of its duty to provide a safe work place, rather than another intentional tort; indeed his complaint included other intentional act claims--battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. We have recognized a safe work place claim, saying previously: "It is well established in the District of Columbia that an employer owes a duty to provide all of its employees with a reasonably safe workplace."*fn14

In short, since Mr. Taylor's pleading was sufficient to satisfy our notice pleading standard, the trial court should not have dismissed ...

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