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Chen v. District of Columbia

March 25, 2009

ZHI CHEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the motion of Nicole Ha, an officer of the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD"), to dismiss plaintiff Zhi Chen's complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn1 Upon consideration of Officer Ha's motion, Ms. Chen's opposition, and Officer Ha's reply, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Officer Ha's motion.

I. BACKGROUND

Ms. Chen claims that MPD Officer Charles Monk detained her without cause on a street in the District of Columbia's Chinatown neighborhood in the early morning hours of April 21, 2007. See Complaint ¶ 9 ("Compl."). Apparently, Officer Monk was acting on a mistaken belief that Ms. Chen had failed to pay a $60 bill at a local Red Roof Inn. See id. ¶¶ 13-19. Ms. Chen claims that Officer Monk shouted at her, grabbed her left arm, pushed her across the street, "slammed" her on the hood of a car and handcuffed her. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. Officer Monk then called Officers Ha and Spears for assistance. See id. ¶ 10. Without advising Ms. Chen of her Miranda rights, "Officer Ha and Spears put [Ms. Chen] into their own police patrol car" and drove her to the complaining Red Roof Inn. Id. ¶ 11. While at the Red Roof Inn, Officers Ha and Spears looked on as Officer Monk searched Ms. Chen, removed $60 from her pocket and gave it to the cashier. Id. ¶¶ 12-15. Ms. Chen claims that Officers Ha and Spears never asked Officer Monk why Ms. Chen was being detained, and ignored her pleas for help and her requests for an interpreter. See id. ¶¶ 15-16. Later that day, according to Ms. Chen, Officer Monk returned the money to her, admitted that he had made a mistake and apologized to her. Id. ¶ 19.

On January 9, 2008, Ms. Chen filed suit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, naming as defendants the District of Columbia, Officer Ha, Officer Monk, Officer Spears and Red Roof Inns. Her complaint includes the following claims: "Personal Injury Against All Defendants" (Count I); "False Arrest and Imprisonment" (against all defendants) (Count II); "Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress" (against all defendants) (Count III); "Negligence" (against all defendants) (Count V); "Gross Negligence, Negligence" (against the District of Columbia) (Count VI); "Gross Negligence, Negligence" (against Red Roof Inns) (Count VII); "Negligent Supervision, Training, and Maintenance of Personnel" (against the District of Columbia and Red Roof Inns) (Count VIII); and "Violation of Civil Rights: 42 U.S.C. § 1983" (against all defendants) (Count IX). Compl. ¶¶ 20-58.*fn2 On February 14, 2008, defendants removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Officer Ha has moved to dismiss all of Ms. Chen's claims against her for failure to state a claim. Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows dismissal of a complaint if a plaintiff fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the Supreme Court clarified the standard of pleading that a plaintiff must meet in order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). The Court noted that "Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only '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[.]'" Id. at 555 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); see also Aktieselskabet AF 21 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 15 (D.C. Cir. 2008). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief," a plaintiff must furnish "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). The Court stated that there was no "probability requirement at the pleading stage," Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, but "something beyond . . . mere possibility . . . must be alleged[.]" Id. at 557-58. The facts alleged in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," id. at 555, or must be sufficient "to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. The Court referred to this newly clarified standard as "the plausibility standard." Id. at 560 (abandoning the "no set of facts" language from Conley v. Gibson). Twombly "leaves the long-standing fundamentals of notice pleading intact." Aktieselskabet AF 21 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d at 15.

On a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court "must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint." Erickson v. Pardus, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007); see also Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The complaint "is construed liberally in the plaintiffs' favor, and [the Court should] grant plaintiffs 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). Nevertheless, the Court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint; nor must the Court accept plaintiff's legal conclusions. See Kowal v. MCI Communications Corp., 16 F.3d at 1276; Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

III. DISCUSSION

A. "Violation of Civil Rights: 42 U.S.C. § 1983" (Count IX)

Ms. Chen alleges that Officers Ha, Monk and Spears, acting as agents of the District of Columbia, violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution by (1) subjecting her to a false arrest, and (2) using excessive and unreasonable force in effecting that arrest. See Compl. ¶¶ 57-58. She thus seeks relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn3 According to Officer Ha, Ms. Chen's Section 1983 claim against her should be dismissed for two reasons. See Reply at 2-3. First, Officer Ha maintains that she did nothing unlawful. According to Officer Ha, she did not "arrest" Ms. Chen; rather, she merely performed a "Terry stop." See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 23 (1968) (holding that "a police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest"). Since the undisputed facts (in Officer Ha's view) establish that Officer Ha was justified in executing such a Terry stop, that stop was lawful -- and Ms. Chen therefore has failed to state a claim for violation of her constitutional rights. Second, Officer Ha argues that even assuming that she was not fully justified in executing a Terry stop, she is nonetheless shielded from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity. Officer Ha's arguments might succeed on a motion for summary judgment after discovery, but they cannot succeed on a motion to dismiss the instant complaint for failure to state a claim.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right "to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. CONST. amend. IV. A citizen who alleges that she has been subjected to an unreasonable search or seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment may seek redress under Section 1983. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989). As Judge Urbina has explained:

[I]n determining whether a detention has occurred within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has recognized three types of police-citizen encounters; (1) a full-scale arrest, which must be supported by probable cause, (2) a brief investigatory detention which must be supported by reasonable suspicion, and (3) a brief police-citizen encounter, which requires no justification.

Cotton v. District of Columbia, 541 F. Supp. 2d 195, 202 (D.D.C. 2008) (internal quotation ...


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