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Hardy v. District of Columbia

March 6, 2009

RONALD HARDY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

After allegedly being assaulted by fellow inmates, plaintiffs Denis Garcia and Martell Legrand filed suit against former Director of the D.C. Department of Corrections Odie Washington and former D.C. Jail Warden Steven Smith in both their official and individual capacities, and the District of Columbia, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.*fn1 Defendants Washington and Smith have moved to dismiss the claims against them, insisting that the official capacity claims should be brought solely against the District of Columbia and that they are entitled to qualified immunity from suit. Because the same claims against Washington and Smith in their official capacities are also brought against the District of Columbia, they are redundant and will be dismissed as to Washington and Smith. Because the Fifth Amendment, rather than the Eighth Amendment, applies to pretrial detainees' rights, the plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims will be dismissed. Washington and Smith's motions to dismiss the plaintiffs' Fifth Amendment claims because of qualified immunity will be denied because the plaintiffs have alleged violations of actual Fifth Amendment rights that were clearly established at the time.

BACKGROUND

While incarcerated in the D.C. Jail as pretrial detainees, plaintiffs Garcia and Legrand were each allegedly assaulted, on separate occasions in 2004 and 2005, by inmates*fn2 who threw scalding liquid on them while they were locked in their jail cells. (See Compl. ¶¶ 32, 36). Each plaintiff reports suffering severe burns as a result of the assault against him. (Id.) In their complaint, Garcia and Legrand allege that "[n]o prison guard saw, heard, or was present at the time of the assault[s] to supervise, monitor or deter the assault[s.]" (Id. ¶¶ 33, 37). The plaintiffs insist that "[d]espite the officials' longstanding awareness of the conditions of confinement at the Jail and the clearly established constitutional requirements for the facility, defendants adopted a custom or policy with respect to the operations of the Jail that was deliberately indifferent to, and recklessly disregarded, the safety and security of the detainees and the inmates housed there." (Id. ¶ 31.) Plaintiffs allege that Washington and Smith violated their Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect the plaintiffs from known dangerous conditions, including the threat of violence by other inmates. In response, Washington and Smith have moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss the complaint, insisting that it fails to state a claim against them and that they are entitled to qualified immunity from suit.

DISCUSSION

A complaint may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) when a plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). "A Rule 12(b)(6) motion is intended to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint." Kingman Park Civic Ass'n v. Williams, 348 F.3d 1033, 1040 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). "'Rule 12(b)(6) is not a device for testing the truth of what is asserted or for determining whether a plaintiff has any evidence to back up what is in the complaint. . . . The issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.'" Scott v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 05-1853 (RWR), 2006 WL 1409770, at *2 (D.D.C. May 23, 2006) (quoting ACLU Foundation of So. Cal. v. Barr, 952 F.2d 457, 467 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (quotations and citations omitted)). "On review of a 12(b)(6) motion a court 'must treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'" Holy Land Found. for Relief & Dev. v. Ashcroft, 333 F.3d 156, 165 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (quoting Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000)). "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions . . . ." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations and quotations omitted) (alteration in original). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level[.]" Id.

I. OFFICIAL CAPACITY CLAIMS

"Claims brought against government employees in their official capacity are treated as claims against the employing government and serve no independent purpose when the government is also sued." Scott, 2006 WL 1409770, at *3 (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985); Arnold v. Moore, 980 F. Supp. 28, 36 (D.D.C. 1997); Cooke-Seals v. District of Columbia, 973 F. Supp. 184, 187 (D.D.C. 1997) ("[A]n official capacity suit against an individual is the functional equivalent of a suit against the employer[.]")). Because plaintiffs make claims against the District of Columbia, the same claims against Washington and Smith in their official capacities are redundant and will be dismissed.

II. EIGHTH AMENDMENT CLAIMS

"The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting 'cruel and unusual punishment' on prison inmates, which includes '[a] prison official's 'deliberate indifference' to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate.'" Powers-Bunce v. District of Columbia, 479 F. Supp. 2d 146, 152-53 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 828 (1994)). However, "the Amendment's prohibition applies only to persons who are subject to 'punishment' by the government, which the Supreme Court has defined to mean persons against whom the government 'has secured a formal adjudication of guilt' . . . [and] does not apply to pretrial detainees . . . who have not been adjudicated guilty of any crime." Id. at 153 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 n.16 (1979)). Instead, "detainees have an independent due-process right under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to be free from [detaining] officials' 'deliberate indifference'" to detainees' needs and safety. Id.; see City of Revere v. Mass. Gen. Hosp., 463 U.S. 239, 244 (1983) (recognizing that a person apprehended by the police in need of medical care has a due process right to be provided care). Because the plaintiffs represent in their complaint that they were pretrial detainees when the alleged harms occurred (see Compl. at ¶¶ 46, 51), they "had no Eighth Amendment rights that could have been violated." Powers-Bunce, 479 F. Supp. 2d at 153. Accordingly, the motions to dismiss the plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims against Washington and Smith will be granted.

III. QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

"The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials 'from [personal] liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); see Owen v. City of Independence, Mo., 445 U.S. 622, 652-54 (1980) (discussing qualified immunity as protecting public officials from personal liability)). "[Q]ualified immunity is 'an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability[.]'" Pearson, 129 S.Ct. at 815, 818 (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)). Whether a defendant is protected by qualified immunity should be resolved at the "earliest possible stage" so that the "costs and expenses of trial are avoided where the defense is dispositive." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2001); see Pearson, 129 S.Ct. at 815.

To determine if an official is protected by qualified immunity and therefore entitled to dismissal of the claims against him, a court must ask "whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right," and "whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violations." Int'l Action Ctr. v. United States, 365 F.3d 20, 24 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (quotations and citations omitted).*fn3 The second inquiry "must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition. . . . 'The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'" Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201-02 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). The question is whether "it would be clear to a reasonable [official] that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Id. "It is no defense that an official was unaware of a law, as a 'reasonably competent public official should know the law governing his conduct.'" Barham v. Ramsey, 338 F. Supp. 2d 48, 55 (D.D.C. 2004) (quoting Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818-19). "If the officer's mistake as to what the law requires is reasonable, however, the officer is entitled to the immunity defense." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 205.

Plaintiffs have brought constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Washington and Smith in their individual capacities. "[I]n order to state a claim under § 1983, . . . a plaintiff must allege that the defendant violated a right protected by the Constitution" or a federal statute. Powers-Bunce, 479 F. Supp. 2d at 152; see Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 279 (2002) (noting "that § 1983 actions may be brought against state actors to enforce rights created by federal statutes as well as by the Constitution").*fn4 "'As a general rule, government officials may be sued in their individual capacities for constitutional violations only if they are directly responsible for the alleged violations.'" Banks v. York, 515 F. Supp. 2d 89, 100 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Caldwell v. Hammonds, 53 F. Supp. 2d 1, 9 (D.D.C. 1999)). In their complaint, plaintiffs allege that Washington and Smith acted to violate plaintiffs' Fifth Amendment rights while they ...


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