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Michael Williams v. District of Columbia

December 9, 2010

MICHAEL WILLIAMS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-2696-09) (The Hon. Judith E. Retchin, Trial Judge)

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

(Argued October 14, 2010 )

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, THOMPSON, Associate Judge, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

On April 8, 2009, appellant Michael Williams filed a complaint against the District of Columbia ("the District"), Mayor Adrian Fenty, and Clark Ray, then-Director of the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation ("DPR") asserting that he had been terminated from his position with DPR in violation of the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act ("DC-WPA" or "Act"), D.C. Code §§ 1-615.51 to -59 (2001). He also asserted claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The defendants brought a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted, finding that Williams failed to state a claim for relief for each of the three causes of action because: (1) he did not allege facts showing that he made a "protected disclosure" under the DC-WPA; (2) his defamation claim lacked sufficient specificity; and (3) the circumstances of his termination did not rise to the "extreme and outrageous" level required to sustain an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. On appeal, Mr. Williams argues that the trial court's judgment granting the motion to dismiss should be reversed.

We affirm the trial court's ruling as to Williams's DC-WPA and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, but reverse and remand as to his defamation claim.

I.

For purposes of our review of the trial court's ruling granting defendants' motion to dismiss, we must accept as true, and we view in the light most favorable to appellant Williams, the following allegations set out in the complaint. Wanzer v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 127, 129 (D.C. 1990). In January 2008, Williams was hired as the Associate Director of Athletic Programs for DPR, a position in which he was "responsible for the administration of DPR's youth basketball leagues." The rules of the youth basketball league established that children ages six through eight play in the "Pee Wee" division, and children ages nine and ten play in the "Pony" division. The rules provided that a child's age was to be determined on April 5 of each year, and therefore a player who had turned or would turn nine before April 5, 2009 was not eligible to play in the Pee Wee division in 2009, but instead should play in the Pony division. The rules, which were "designed 'to provide a safe, healthy and positive environment for all youth participants,'" also required each child to provide DPR with documentation that included age verification.

On or about February 11, 2009, DPR staff members notified Williams that "they were receiving calls from members of the public" who were complaining that Mayor Fenty's twin sons were playing in the Pee Wee league even though they were "ineligible" because they would turn nine years old on March 8, 2009. Two days later, Williams "learned of additional complaints [about Mayor Fenty's children] from parents of younger children." Williams called Sean Conley, a personal aide to Mayor Fenty, to ask about Fenty's children, and Conley "admitted that Defendant Fenty's children were playing in a younger division in violation of the rules . . . [and] confirmed that Defendant Fenty was aware of the violation."

On February 13, 2009, Williams called Ray, his supervisor, to tell him the "facts he had learned" about Mayor Fenty's children. Ray "admitted that Defendant Fenty's children were playing in violation of the rules [and] promised to . . . get advice on how to handle the situation." On February 17, 2009, Ray "told [Williams] that Defendant Fenty's children were going to continue to play in the Pee Wee division." That day, Williams asked "an associate" to contact Mayor Fenty "to discuss the situation." On February 18, 2009, the associate told Williams that Mayor Fenty responded to his inquiry "by cursing and belittling the associate."

On February 23, 2009, Ray informed Williams that he was being terminated from his job effective March 9, 2009. Ray told Williams that he was being terminated for budgetary reasons, but, in response to Williams's questions about why he was being fired, also told Williams, "[Y]ou are smart and can figure it out."

On March 25, 2009, Williams testified before the Council of the District of Columbia (the "Council") about his termination and his allegations regarding Mayor Fenty's sons' participation in violation of the basketball league rules. He asserts in his complaint that "agents and employees" of the District retaliated against him "by publishing and/or republishing false and defamatory 'explanations' for his abrupt termination," specifically, that Williams was terminated for embezzlement. The complaint further asserts that "[o]n information and belief, a senior official of the District of Columbia government who was displeased with" Williams's allegations of retaliatory termination and with his testimony before the Council "initiated publication of the false rumor." It also asserts that "[i]ndividuals who are present and former employees of DPR and/or are active in youth sports activities" called Williams "to tell him that the (false) rumor accusing him of embezzlement is 'out there' in the community."

On August 27, 2009, the trial court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss Williams's complaint. This appeal followed.

II.

We review the trial court's order granting the motion to dismiss de novo. Duncan v. Children's Nat'l Medical Ctr., 702 A.2d 207, 210 (D.C. 1997). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint "must set forth sufficient information to outline the legal elements of a viable claim for relief or to permit inferences to be drawn from the complaint that indicate that these elements exist." Chamberlain v. Am. Honda Fin. ...


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