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Barnhardt v. District of Columbia

November 18, 2010

JOHN BARNHARDT, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEES.



On Certification from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (CA-09-7040).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued September 29, 2010

Before RUIZ, FISHER and OBERLY, Associate Judges.

We have been asked to answer a question of District of Columbia law certified to this court from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit pursuant to D.C. Code § 11-723 (2001). At issue is whether D.C. Code § 12-309 (2001) operates to bar potential tort claims by appellant, John Barnhardt, against the District of Columbia for destruction of his property. The United States Court of Appeals framed the certified question as follows:

Does D.C. Code § 12-309 bar Barnhardt's tort claims due to the fact that he did not provide notice to the Mayor of the District of Columbia within six months after the destruction of his property, even if, as he alleges, he was not aware that his property had been destroyed or that it had been in the custody of the Metropolitan Police Department until over six months after its destruction?

For the reasons that follow, we answer the question in the negative and hold that D.C. Code § 12-309 minimally requires, as a necessary factual precondition to barring a claim, that the claimant know or have reason to know that he has sustained injury or damage.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

John Barnhardt filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the District of Columbia, the Mayor of the District of the Columbia, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, an unnamed property clerk of the Metropolitan Police Department, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the Metro Transit Police Department, the Chief of the Metro Transit Police Department, and two Metro Transit Police officers. The complaint included a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the destruction of Barnhardt's property without due process in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as tort claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and conversion. After a number of dismissals, many by concession of the plaintiff, the only claims remaining before the District Court were a claim against the District of Columbia for the destruction of Barnhardt's property in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and tort claims against the District of Columbia for negligence and conversion.

The District Court dismissed the due process claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 (b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The court granted summary judgment to the District on the tort claims, based on the trial court's interpretation of D.C. Code § 12-309 as requiring notice by the claimant within six months of the date his property was destroyed. On appeal of the dismissal of appellant's claims, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the law was unclear as to whether § 12-309 would operate to bar the tort claims against the District of Columbia if, as appellant claimed, he had no knowledge of the injury within the six-month period following the destruction of his property. It therefore certified that question to this court.

II. THE FACTS

Barnhardt's complaint alleged that Barnhardt was arrested on May 5, 2005, by Metro Transit police officers. In the course of the arrest, certain items belonging to Barnhardt were confiscated, including: (i) several bundles of U.S. currency, (ii) two cellular phones, (iii) two money orders, (iv) various personal papers and effects, and (v) jewelry, consisting of two gold diamond rings (valued by Barnhardt at $15,000) and a gold and diamond chain (valued by Barnhardt at $5,000). Barnhardt was taken to the central cellblock in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia where he was processed and then released. Immediately upon release, Barnhardt visited the Metro Transit Police Department to seek the return of his personal property. He was told that his property could not be returned because it "may be used as evidence in the criminal case pending before the Grand Jury."

The criminal case against Barnhardt concluded two years later, in 2007, and Barnhardt renewed his requests for the return of his property.*fn1 He filed a motion in the Superior Court requesting that the property be returned to him, which was granted on September 10, 2007. On September 20, 2007, with the judge's order in hand, Barnhardt returned to the Metro Transit Police Property Office. Most of his items were then returned by WMATA, but the agent at the Property Office told Barnhardt that his jewelry, money orders, and several other items could not be located. Barnhardt made a further motion in the Superior Court seeking to compel the return of his missing items. In response, in a filing made on October 4, 2007, WMATA informed the Superior Court that the missing items had been transferred to the custody of the Sixth District of the Metropolitan Police Department, where they had been destroyed on May 4, 2006.

On or about March 17, 2008, Barnhardt sent notice to the Office of the Mayor of his intent to file a lawsuit for damages against the District of Columbia. The Office of the Mayor received the notice on March 25, 2008. Barnhardt's complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on July 31, 2008. At issue in the question certified to this court is the viability of Barnhardt's common law tort claims for negligence and conversion against the District of Columbia.

With respect to these tort claims, the District Court concluded that Barnhardt had "sustained injury" for purposes of D.C. Code ยง 12-309 on May 4, 2006, the date on which his property was destroyed by the Metropolitan Police Department. Because the notice sent by Barnhardt had not been received by the Office of the Mayor until March 25, 2008, nearly two years later, his tort claims were barred by the six-month notice requirement imposed by D.C. Code ...


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