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Jones v. Ritter

November 19, 2008

STEVEN JONES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JAMES RITTER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Robertson United States District Judge

AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION

For the reasons discussed below, the Motion of Defendants District of Columbia, Michael Boland and Charles Ramsey to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint will be granted in part and denied in part without prejudice.*fn1 The District of Columbia's Second Motion to Dismiss will be denied, and the Motion to Dismiss Filed on Behalf of James Ritter will be granted as conceded.*fn2 Officer Steven Prade's Motion to Dismiss will be denied without prejudice. In addition, the Court grants plaintiff's motion to appoint counsel.*fn3

I. BACKGROUND

The incident giving rise to plaintiff's causes of action occurred on November 8, 2005 in and near the 800 block of Taylor Street in Northwest Washington. See Compl. ¶¶ 14, 17. According to plaintiff, Metropolitan Police Department officers James Ritter, Steven Prade, and Michael Boland, wearing plain clothes, got out of an unmarked vehicle "and pursued in the plaintiff['s] direction without any verbal warnings that they were police personnel." Id. ¶ 14. "Fearing that the officer[s] were regular street bandits," plaintiff "retrieved a small .38 caliber handgun . . . and pointed it at the plain clothed officers." Id. ¶ 15. When the officers identified themselves as police, "knowing that he was in possession of an unlicensed firearm," plaintiff fled. Id. ¶ 16. The officers "brought [plaintiff] down to the ground," retrieved the handgun, "and then beat him ungodly in the street." Id. ¶ 17. The officers allegedly dragged plaintiff on the concrete "causing severe burn patterns and scaring [sic] to his skin, face, thighs, and he was soaked with mace which flamed the torn skin on his face, causing great pain within the blisters of open flesh." Id. ¶ 18. They proceeded to punch and kick plaintiff repeatedly "while he was subdued on the ground in a non-threatening manner." Id. ¶ 19. After he was handcuffed and transported to the Fifth District station for processing, plaintiff was taken to a local hospital "where he was treated for [] injuries and lacerations to his face, arms [and] legs" and "received water for his eyes caused by the mace sprayed on him." Id. ¶ 20.

Plaintiff brings this action against the District of Columbia and against officers Ritter, Prade, and Boland in their individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of rights protected by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.*fn4 Compl. ¶¶ 3, 32. In addition, plaintiff brings tort claims of negligence, gross negligence, assault, battery, and abuse of process. Id. ¶ 33. He demands compensatory and punitive damages. See id. at 8.

II. DISCUSSION

Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendants move to dismiss on the ground that the complaint fails to state claims on which relief can be granted. See Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of the Motion of Defendants District of Columbia, Michael Boland and Charles Ramsey to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint ("Defs.' Mot.") at 3-4, 5-12; Officer Steven Prade's Motion to Dismiss ("Prade Mot.") at 4-6.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint contain "'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47(1957)). A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) does not test a plaintiff's likelihood of success on the merits; rather, it tests whether a plaintiff properly has stated a claim. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The factual allegations of the complaint are presumed to be true and are construed liberally in plaintiff's favor. See, e.g., United States v. Phillip Morris, Inc., 116 F. Supp. 2d 131, 135 (D.D.C. 2001). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not required to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff must offer "more than labels and conclusions" or "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" to provide "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65.

The Court liberally construes a pro se complaint. "[H]owever inartfully pleaded," it is held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Accordingly, a pro se plaintiff is not required to use specific legal terms or phrases, and the Court "will grant [] plaintiff[] the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Kowal v. MCI Communications Corp. 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. at 45-46). "Nonetheless, a pro se complaint, like any other, must present a claim upon which relief can be granted by the court." Henthorn v. Dep't of Navy, 29 F.3d 682, 684 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quoting Crisafi v. Holland, 655 F.2d 1305, 1308 (D.C. Cir. 1981)).

A. Plaintiff's Constitutional Claims*fn5

1. Excessive Force

"[A]ll claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force -- deadly or not -- in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other 'seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its 'reasonableness' standard." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989) (emphasis in original); see Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7-22 (1985) (analyzing constitutionality of use of force under Fourth Amendment although complaint alleged violations of both Fourth Amendment and Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause). Accordingly, to the extent that plaintiff brings this action because defendants Ritter, Prade and Boland "unlawfully beat, maced, and harassed the plaintiff while subdued on the ground," Compl. ¶ 1, the Court construes the complaint as if plaintiff had articulated an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment.

Defendants argue that "the officers' actions in apprehending and arresting [plaintiff] do not state a claim that rises to the level of a constitutional violation." Defs.' Mot. at 12. Even if plaintiff had alleged a Fourth Amendment violation, defendants argue that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Id. Defendants rely on what they deem plaintiff's admissions that he pointed an illegal, unlicensed handgun at the police officers, ignored commands to drop the gun, and fled. See id. at 13. In their view, the officers' response to the threat plaintiff presented warranted the use of "some degree of force . . . to subdue" plaintiff. Id.

Plaintiff alleges that three MPD officers "beat him ungodly in the street," Compl. ΒΆ 17, after apprehending, disarming and subduing him. Assuming for purposes of this motion that the allegations of the complaint are true, the Court concludes that plaintiff articulates a violation of rights protected by the Fourth Amendment. At this stage of the proceedings and prior to discovery, it is impossible to determine whether the ...


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