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Matthews v. District of Columbia

December 30, 2009

JEFFREY MATTHEWS ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs Jeffrey Matthews, Frankie West, and Earline Hickman sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for compensatory and punitive damages and equitable relief, alleging that the District of Columbia and its Mayor deprived them of a constitutionally-protected property interest without due process by terminating their workers' compensation benefits without providing them with a post-deprivation hearing to challenge the termination. The defendants move to dismiss or in the alternative for summary judgment, and the plaintiffs cross-move for summary judgment. Because the plaintiffs have now received their due process, have failed to plead or present any evidence that the delay they experienced in receiving their benefits caused them actual damages, and do not seek nominal damages in their complaint, the claim for equitable relief will be dismissed as moot, and judgment will be entered for the defendants on the claim for damages.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs allege that in 1998, they suffered work-related injuries while they were employees of the District. (Compl. ¶¶ 5-7.) In 2004, Matthews' workers' compensation benefits were suspended by the District's Office of Risk Management's Disability Compensation Program ("DCP"). On several occasions, Matthews submitted written requests to the DCP for a formal denial order. Such an order was purportedly required before Matthews could obtain an evidentiary hearing to challenge the benefits suspension. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 15.) Similarly, in June 2004, the DCP refused to pay a workers compensation invoice submitted by Hickman's treating physician because Hickman's "claim was closed."*fn1 (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) In October 2006, Hickman filed an application for a formal hearing with the Office of Hearings and Adjudications' Administrative Hearings Division ("AHD"), but the AHD informed Hickman that she had no right to a hearing until she received a formal denial of award of compensation benefits or a formal notice of loss of wage earning capacity from the DCP. In November 2006, Hickman made a written request to DCP to issue a formal denial order. (Id. ¶¶ 29-31.) Further, in October 2006, the DCP informed West's treating physician that the DCP would no longer accept responsibility for West's medical treatment.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 19.) West attempted to file an application for a formal hearing with the AHD, but the AHD informed West that he had no right to a hearing until he received a formal denial of award of compensation benefits or a formal notice of loss of wage earning capacity from the DCP. (Id. ¶ 22.) In November 2006, West made a written request to the DCP to issue a formal denial order. (Id. ¶ 23.) At the time the complaint in this case was filed, the DCP had not yet issued any of the plaintiffs a denial order. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 24, 32.)

On January 5, 2007, the three plaintiffs filed this action. The complaint alleges one count against the defendants for denying the plaintiffs' constitutional rights under the color of law in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by depriving them of their property -- their workers' compensation benefits -- without notice or the opportunity to defend their interests. (Compl. ¶¶ 35-38.) The complaint sought "appropriate affirmative relief . . . including but not limited to [ordering defendants to] grant[] each [plaintiff] a hearing . . . [and] compensatory and pecuniary damages." (Compl. ¶ 38.) Shortly after filing the complaint, the plaintiffs received formal letters of denial from the District. West received his denial letter on February 16, 2007, and Matthews and Hickman received their letters on March 7, 2007. (Pls.' Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss or for Summ. J. and Cross Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pls.' Cross Mot.") at 3 n.3.)

In June 2008, the AHD held evidentiary hearings for Matthews and Hickman, after which it issued a final order regarding both of those plaintiffs' claims. (Defs.' Stmt. of Mat. Facts Not in Dispute at ¶¶ 2, 6.) In August 2008, West requested and received an order from the Department of Employment Services' Office of Hearings and Adjudication dismissing her application for an evidentiary hearing. (Id. at ¶ 4.)

The defendants have moved post-discovery to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint, or in the alternative to enter summary judgment for the defendants, arguing that the court lacks federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the plaintiffs' complaint fails to state a federal claim, the case is moot because the plaintiffs have now received their procedural due process, and the plaintiffs are not entitled to damages for the purported deprivation of their property rights. The plaintiffs opposed the defendants' motion and cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and that they have established a compensable due process violation.

DISCUSSION

I. FEDERAL QUESTION JURISDICTION

The defendants argue that the plaintiffs' complaint should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the complaint fails to allege a federal question. According to the defendants, the plaintiffs fail to identify any substantive federal or constitutional right that supports their claims, and that the remedy for claims arising out of the District's conduct as an employer lies exclusively the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act ("CMPA"), D.C. Code §§ 1-601.01-1-607.08. (Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss or for Summ. J. ("Defs.' Mem.") at 6-9.) The plaintiffs counter that what they challenge here is the District blocking their opportunity to be heard regarding their benefit terminations by withholding formal denial letters. They add that the CMPA and the District of Columbia Administrative Procedure Act, D.C. Code § 2-510(a)(2), provide inadequate remedies since those provisions, unlike § 1983, would not enable them to recover damages caused by their inability to have a prompt post-deprivation hearing regarding the termination of their disability benefits. (Pls. Cross Mot. at 9-11.)

Here, the complaint alleges a cause of action arising under a federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, namely, that the defendants violated the plaintiffs right under the Fifth Amendment not to be deprived of property under color of District of Columbia law without due process. A district court has federal jurisdiction over all "civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States[.]" 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A plaintiff's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that a defendant violated his constitutional rights is a claim arising under the laws of the United States. See Johnson v. Dist. of Columbia, 528 F.3d 969, 972 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (stating that "[t]he district court had federal-question jurisdiction over [the plaintiff's] § 1983 claim [under] 28 U.S.C. § 1331"). In addition, "[a]lthough '[t]he District of Columbia Court of Appeals has consistently held that the CMPA provides the exclusive avenue for aggrieved District employees to pursue work-related complaints,' McManus [v. Dist. of Columbia], 530 F. Supp. 2d [46], 77 [(D.D.C. 2007)], that particular statutory remedy does not foreclose this Court from entertaining the constitutional question over which it has original jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331." Deschamps v. Dist. of Columbia, 582 F. Supp. 2d 14, 16 (D.D.C. 2008) (citing Lightfoot v. Dist. of Columbia, 448 F.3d 392, 399 (D.C. Cir. 2006); see also McManus, 530 F. Supp. 2d at 72; Lightfoot v. Dist. of Columbia, 339 F. Supp. 2d 78, 88 n.7 (D.D.C. 2004) (recognizing "a property interest in [D.C. employees's] disability benefits" to which process is due). "'[M]inimum [procedural] requirements [being] a matter of federal law, they are not diminished by the fact that the State may have specified its own procedures that it may deem adequate for determining the preconditions to adverse official action.'" Cleveland Bd. of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 541 (1985) (quoting Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 491 (1980)); see also Winstead v. Dist. of Columbia, 620 F. Supp. 2d 119, 121-122 (D.D.C. 2009) (rejecting the defendants' proposition that the availability of judicial relief with respect to delay in a state's administrative process prevents a court from hearing a § 1983 action premised on that delay). Federal question jurisdiction exists over the plaintiffs' cause of action.

II. ADEQUACY OF CLAIM PLED

A party may move under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, acceptable as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' . . . [A plaintiff must plead] factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). "[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)). "Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983, provides a cause of action for monetary damages and injunctive relief against 'every person who, under color of [law] . . . subjects or causes to be subjected, any person . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution[.]'" Daskalea v. Dist. of Columbia, 227 F.3d 433, 440 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the deprivation of property without the due process of law. U.S. Const. amend. V. In order to have a property interest in disability compensation, the plaintiffs must have a "legitimate claim of entitlement to it." Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972). The District's CMPA creates such an interest. See Fonville v. Dist. of Columbia, 448 F. Supp. 2d 21, 26 (D.D.C. 2006); McManus, 530 F. Supp. 2d at 72-73. "Procedural due process imposes constraints on governmental decisions which deprive individuals of 'liberty' or 'property' interests within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment." McManus, 530 F. Supp. 2d at 72 (quoting Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 323 ...


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