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Halcomb v. Woods

April 28, 2009

GLORIA HALCOMB, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NOPADON WOODS, 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 two separate motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, one filed by defendant Nopadon Woods and one filed by defendant the District of Columbia.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of the arrest and detention of plaintiff Gloria Halcomb in October 2001. Ms. Halcomb entered the District of Columbia's Metrorail system on October 30, 2001 at the Union Station entrance. Defendant Nopadon Woods, a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") police officer, claims that Ms. Halcomb entered without paying her fare. Ms. Halcomb denies that she entered without paying. In any event, Ms. Halcomb contends that Officer Woods and several officers of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") acted unlawfully in arresting and detaining her until the following morning. According to Ms. Halcomb, the officers' unlawful actions deprived her of her civil rights and caused her to suffer physical injury and severe emotional distress.

Ms. Halcomb filed suit on July 1, 2002, and the case was tried before a jury over the course of two weeks in December 2007. At trial, Ms. Halcomb asserted four claims against Officer Woods: (1) a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (based on the allegation that Officer Woods violated her constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures); (2) a common law false arrest claim; (3) a common law assault and battery claim; and (4) a common law intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. She also sought punitive damages against Officer Woods. In addition, Ms. Halcomb asserted one claim against the District of Columbia: a common law intentional infliction of emotional distress claim based on the actions of unidentified MPD officers. At the conclusion of the evidence, both defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court deferred ruling on those motions and submitted the case to the jury in accordance with Rule 50(b). After the jury was unable to reach a verdict as to any of Ms. Halcomb's claims, the Court declared a mistrial. Defendants subsequently renewed their motions for judgment as a matter of law. Ms. Halcomb opposed those motions and they are now ripe for adjudication.

II. STANDARD

After a jury trial, the Court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 only if it finds that "a reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [non-moving] party on that issue[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1).

"In making that determination, a court may not assess the credibility of witnesses or weigh the evidence." Hayman v. Nat'l Acad. of Sciences, 23 F.3d 535, 537 (D.C. Cir. 1994). See also 9B WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERALPRACTICE AND PROCEDURE: CIVIL 3D, § 2524 at 270-85 (2008) ("WRIGHT & MILLER"). Moreover, the Court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. See Hendry v. Pelland, 73 F.3d 397, 400 (D.C. Cir. 1996). See also McGill v. Munoz, 203 F.3d 843, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2000) ("Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only if the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not have reached a verdict in [the non-moving party's] favor.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Pitt v. District of Columbia, 404 F. Supp. 2d 351, 353-54 (D.D.C. 2005), aff'd in part and rev'd in part on other grounds, 491 F.3d 494 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (same). That is not to say, however, that a mere scintilla of evidence will defeat a Rule 50 motion. "The question is not whether there is literally no evidence supporting the party against whom the motion is directed but whether there is evidence upon which the jury might reasonably find a verdict for that party." WRIGHT & MILLER § 2524 at 250-57.

Upon careful consideration of the evidence presented at trial, the parties' papers and the relevant case law, the Court concludes that a reasonable jury would have had a legally sufficient basis on which to find for Ms. Halcomb on her claims against Officer Woods for violations of her civil rights, false arrest, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court also concludes that a reasonable jury could have found that Officer Woods was liable for punitive damages. In contrast, the Court concludes that a reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient basis on which to find for Ms. Halcomb on her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the District of Columbia. Only the intentional infliction of emotional distress claims require further discussion.

III. INTENTIONAL INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS

To establish liability under District of Columbia law for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must show: "(1) extreme and outrageous conduct on the part of the defendant which (2) either intentionally or recklessly (3) cause[d] the plaintiff severe emotional distress." Larijani v. Georgetown Univ., 791 A.2d 41, 44 (D.C. 2002). See also Pitt v. District of Columbia, 491 F.3d at 505-06.

The first element of the tort is satisfied only when the conduct at issue is "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community." Homan v. Goyal, 711 A.2d 812, 818 (D.C. 1998) (citation omitted). Liability "clearly does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities." RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 46 cmt. d (1965) ("RESTATEMENT"). In determining whether specific acts rise to the extreme and outrageous level, courts are guided by "(1) applicable contemporary community standards of offensiveness and decency, and (2) the specific context in which the conduct took place." King v. Kidd, 640 A.2d 656, 668 (D.C. 1993).

The second element requires that the defendant inflicted severe emotional distress in an intentional or reckless manner. See RESTATEMENT § 46 cmt. i. In some cases it is "possible to infer the existence of . . . intent or recklessness . . . from the very outrageousness of a defendant's conduct." Sere v. Group Hospitalization, Inc., 443 A.2d 33, 37 (D.C. 1982).

The third element of the tort requires that the plaintiff suffer "severe emotional distress." To qualify as "severe," the distress asserted must be "of so acute a nature that harmful physical consequences might be not unlikely to result." Sere v. Group Hospitalization, Inc., 443 A.2d at 37 (quoting Clark v. Associated Retail Credit Men, 105 F.2d 62, 65 (D.C. Cir. 1939)). See also Hudson v. District of Columbia, 558 F.3d 526, 533 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (liability attaches only if a plaintiff's emotional injury is "serious" and "verifiable"). Mere "mental anguish" and "stress" do not rise to the level of severe emotional distress. Ross v. DynCorp, 362 F. Supp. 2d 344, 360 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing cases). In addition, the distress asserted may not be "exaggerated and unreasonable" under the circumstances, "unless it results from a peculiar susceptibility to such distress of which the actor has knowledge." RESTATEMENT § 46 cmt. j. See also Langer v. George Washington Univ., 498 F. Supp. 2d 196, 201 (D.D.C. 2007).

A. Officer Woods

Officer Woods is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Ms. Halcomb's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim because a reasonable jury could have found in her favor on this claim. Indeed, the Court agrees with Ms. Halcomb that a reasonable jury could base such a finding on just one of her allegations against Officer Woods: that is, that Officer Woods told her that "now that I know where you live, I ought to come out to your house and put a bullet in your head, having me to go through all this shit." Transcript of Trial at 36 (Dec. 11, 2007) (testimony of Ms. Halcomb). If Officer Woods did indeed make such a statement, a jury could conclude that it constituted extreme and outrageous behavior; that it was intended to inflict emotional distress; and that Ms. Halcomb suffered severe emotional distress as a result.*fn2

B. The District of Columbia

Ms. Halcomb bases her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the District of Columbia on three events, all of which occurred after her arrest by Officer Woods and before she was released from MPD custody the next morning. According to Ms. Halcomb, the District is liable ...


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