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Chanell Lightfoot, As Personal Representative of the Estate of Elizabeth Lightfoot, et al v. District of Columbia

January 10, 2011

CHANELL LIGHTFOOT, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF ELIZABETH LIGHTFOOT, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently pending before the Court is the [510] Second Motion to Decertify the Class filed by the District of Columbia (the "District"), joined in by CLW/Creative Disability Management ("CLW/CDM") (collectively, "Defendants"). Plaintiffs, a class of former employees of the District, first commenced this action in July 2001 asserting a variety of claims challenging the policies and procedures that the District applied to terminate, suspend, and modify disability compensation benefits. Over the years, Plaintiffs' claims have been successively winnowed down by orders of this Court as well as the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Today, the action focuses on a single cause of action-namely, whether Defendants, in applying the relevant statutory and regulatory framework, terminated*fn1 disability compensation benefits without affording beneficiaries adequate and timely notice and an opportunity to respond, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment (the "Due Process Clause"). Because the continued certification of the class is no longer appropriate, the Court shall GRANT the District's [510] Second Motion to Decertify the Class.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court assumes familiarity with its prior opinions in this action, which set forth in detail the history of this case, and shall therefore only address the factual and procedural background necessary to address the issues currently before the Court.

A. The Scope of the Action Today

Plaintiffs, a class of former employees of the District, first commenced this action in July 2001 asserting eight claims directed towards challenging the policies and procedures that the District applied to terminate disability compensation benefits pursuant to the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act of 1978 (the "CMPA"), D.C. Code §§ 1-601.01 et seq. See Compl., Docket No. [1]. On September 24, 2004, this Court granted Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment as to two of Plaintiffs' claims, which alleged that Defendants' failure to adopt written standards governing the termination of benefits violated the Due Process Clause (one of several claims asserted by Plaintiffs under the Due Process Clause) and the District of Columbia Administrative Procedure Act (the "DCAPA"). See Lightfoot v. District of Columbia, 339 F. Supp. 2d 78 (D.D.C. 2004), rev'd, 448 F.3d 392 (D.C. Cir. 2006). On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (the "D.C. Circuit") reversed this Court's decision as it pertained to Plaintiffs' claim under the Due Process Clause, and remanded the DCAPA claim for reconsideration as to whether the exercise of supplemental jurisdiction over that claim was appropriate. See Lightfoot v. District of Columbia, 448 F.3d 392 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

On remand, on January 16, 2007, this Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss three of Plaintiffs' claims arising under the Due Process Clause, which included challenges to the sufficiency of the notices accompanying Defendants' termination decisions and the adequacy of their decisionmaking. See Lightfoot v. District of Columbia, No. 01 Civ. 1484, 2007 WL 148777 (D.D.C. Jan. 16, 2007). The Court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' DCAPA claim. Id. Subsequently, on April 10, 2007, the Court granted Defendants' supplemental motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' claim mounting a facial challenge to the CMPA, a claim predicated on the contention that the statute was itself violative of the Due Process Clause. Lightfoot v. District of Columbia, No. 01 Civ. 1484, 2007 WL 1087474 (D.D.C. Apr. 10, 2007).

As a result of all this motion practice, the locus of this case is now a single cause of action-an "as-applied" challenge to Defendants' administration of the CMPA, rooted in principles of procedural due process. Specifically, Plaintiffs contend as follows:

[As the CMPA] was applied, Defendants reduced, suspended or terminated disability compensation benefits . . . without affording beneficiaries adequate and timely notice and opportunity to demonstrate a continuing entitlement to benefits in violation of the Due Process Clause. 4th Am. Compl., Docket No. [412], ¶ 95.*fn2 To prevail on their claim, Plaintiffs must establish, inter alia, that the class was denied due process across the board.

B. Class Certification Proceedings

The Court initially certified the class in this action on January 14, 2004. See Order (Jan. 14, 2004), Docket No. [153]. In April 2005, this Court ordered Defendants to identify all class members. See Order (Apr. 11, 2005), Docket No. [227]; Order (Apr. 26, 2005), Docket No. [230]. In response, the District engaged an outside contractor to compile a list of class members, ultimately providing Plaintiffs with a list of approximately 5,052 potential class members. Thereafter, the District determined that the initial list was overly broad and reduced the number of class members to 548.For their part, Plaintiffs maintained that the class lists prepared by the District were both over- and under-inclusive.

Following remand from the D.C. Circuit, the parties' attempts to conduct discovery as to Plaintiffs' remaining procedural due process claim soon unraveled due to disagreements over the composition of the class list. The District proposed to conduct an audit of the class list, while Plaintiffs proposed reviewing a statistically significant number of case files to create a common factual predicate for assessing Plaintiffs' claim. See Pls.' Status Report (Apr. 11, 2007), Docket No. [331]. The parties proceeded with Plaintiffs' proposal, until the District determined that the sampling process had inappropriately shifted the burdens of discovery. See Defs.' Status Report (Apr. 12, 2007), Docket No. [332].

On April 17, 2007, taking into account intervening amendments to the CMPA that precluded the possibility of prospective relief, the Court modified the class definition to exclude individuals whose benefits were terminated after April 5, 2005, the date on which the amendments came into effect. See Order (Apr. 17, 2007), Docket No. [333]. As modified, the class-certified pursuant to Rule 23(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure-is defined as follows:

All persons who received disability compensation benefits pursuant to D.C. Code § 1-623.1, et seq. and whose benefits were terminated, suspended or reduced between June 27, 1998 and April 5, 2005, the date on which the Disability Compensation Effective Administration Amendment Act of 2004, D.C. Act 15-685, 52 D.C. Reg. 1449 (Jan. 4, 2005), took effect. "Disability compensation benefits" is defined to exclude a scheduled award provided in D.C. Code § 1-623.7 expiring at the end of the statutory term, continuation of pay provided in D.C. Code § 1-623.18(a) expiring at the end of the statutory term, funeral expenses provided in D.C. Code § 1-623.34, a fully paid lump sum settlement provided in D.C. Code § 1-623.35, and credited compensation leave provided in D.C. Code § 1-623.43.

Id. at 1-2. The Court also ordered the parties to devise a means of creating an accurate class list. See Order (Apr. 17, 2007), Docket No. [334].

On May 10, 2007, the Court ordered the District to show cause why the parties should not be directed to retain an outside vendor capable of compiling an accurate class list and developing a statistically significant sample of the class records to be used as a factual predicate in addressing Plaintiffs' remaining procedural due process claim. See Order (May 10, 2007), Docket No. [338]. Instead, on May 31, 2007, Defendants filed their first motion to decertify the class, challenging each of the requirements for class certification under Rule 23. See Defs.' Mot. to Decertify the Class, Docket No. [342].

On November 15, 2007, the Court denied Defendants' first motion to decertify the class. See Lightfoot v. District of Columbia, 246 F.R.D. 326 (D.D.C. 2007). Among other things, the Court observed that, in order to prevail on their procedural due process claim, Plaintiffs were not tasked with establishing constitutional violations for particular individuals, but rather would "be required to prove that 'as a matter of policy and normal practice,' beneficiaries were not afforded adequate notice and opportunity to be heard before their benefits were modified." Id. at 336. In upholding the continued certification of the class, this Court emphasized that Plaintiffs maintained that Defendants "applied a common set of unwritten policies and practices to all individuals." Id. at 341 (emphasis added). The Court presumed that Plaintiffs' evidence to this effect would be based on a compilation of data regarding the process afforded class members, but never strayed from the overarching principle that, "[t]o succeed, Plaintiffs must prove that the alleged due process violation occurred across the board," id. (emphasis added), a formulation derived in part from Circuit Judge Laurence H. Silberman's concurring opinion on appeal, which noted that whether a government actor's process is constitutionally adequate is to be determined with reference to "the run-of-the-mine cases and not every application," Lightfoot, 448 F.3d at 402 (Silberman, J., concurring).

Following the denial of Defendants' first motion for decertification, the parties returned to the process of assembling a common class list and collecting case files for potential class members. Defendants also deposed two of the representative Plaintiffs. The Court again ordered Defendants to certify a class list, and directed the parties to proceed from an agreed-upon universe of class members in presenting their arguments as to liability. See Min. Order (Feb. 28, 2008); Order (Mar. 4, 2008), Docket No. [371]. The process was a tortured one and consumed substantial time and resources of the parties and this Court. Suffice it to say that, to the list of individuals initially certified by the District, the parties added individuals known to Plaintiffs and incorporated records subsequently discovered by the District to form "the definitive list of potential class members for the purposes of liability." Order (Dec. 22, 2009), Docket No. [498], at 1 (emphasis in original).

On January 29, 2010, Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment. See Pls.' Mem. in Supp. of Pls.' Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. on Liability ("Pls.' Summ. J. Mem."), Docket No. [506-32]. On March 1, 2010, Defendants filed an opposition. See Defs.' Opp'n to Pls.' Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Defs.' Summ. J. Opp'n"), Docket No. [524]. On March 17, 2010, Plaintiffs filed a reply. See Pls.' Reply to Defs.' Opp'n to Pls.' Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pls.' Summ. J. Reply"), Docket No. [532]. That motion is fully briefed and remains pending.

Concurrently with the briefing of Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, the parties briefed the present motion for class decertification. The District filed its opening papers on February 8, 2010. See Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Defs.' Second Mot. to Decertify the Class ("Defs.' Mem."), Docket No. [510]. Subsequently, CLW/CDM filed a notice indicating that it joined in the District's motion. See CLW/CDM's Notice of Joining the Defs.' Second Mot. to Decertify the Class, Docket No. [512]. On February 12, 2010, Plaintiff filed an opposition. See Pls.' Opp'n to Defs.' Second Mot. to Decertify the Class ("Pls.' Opp'n"), Docket No. [511]. On February 17, 2010, the Defendants filed their reply. See Defs.' Reply to Pls.' Opp'n to Defs.' Second Mot. to Decertify the Class, Docket No. [514].*fn3 The matter is now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

This action implicates core constitutional rights, the statutory remedies therefor, the scope of municipal liability under federal law, and complex class action practice.As a result, the universe of legal principles potentially involved in this action is broad indeed. The Court need not-and does not-seek to map the intricacies of this universe here. However, because it shall inform the Court's resolution of the immediate motion for decertification, the Court begins with an overview of the substantive law governing Plaintiffs' remaining procedural due process claim, turning thereafter to the procedural framework governing the class certification question. Before proceeding further, the Court pauses to observe that its ruling today comes on the heels of nearly a decade of litigation; as a result, the decision is necessarily confined to the specific, and well-developed, record in this action.

A. Municipal Liability Under Section 1983

Plaintiffs' claim arises under Section 1 of the Ku Klux Act of 1871, Rev. Stat. § 1979, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), which provides, in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Where, as here, the plaintiff seeks to hold a municipality liable under Section 1983, the inquiry divides into two: the plaintiff must first establish a predicate constitutional violation; thereafter, the plaintiff must establish that a "policy or custom"*fn4 of the municipality caused the constitutional violation. Brown v. District of Columbia, 514 F.3d 1279, 1283 (D.C. Cir. 2008). "Each inquiry is separate and serves different purposes." Baker v. District of Columbia, 326 F.3d 1302, 1306 (D.C. Cir. 2003). At the first stage, "[a]ll that is being established . . . is that there is some constitutional harm suffered by the plaintiff, not whether the municipality is liable for that harm." Id.

1. The Predicate Constitutional Violation: Procedural Due Process Plaintiffs' Section 1983 claim is predicated upon an alleged violation of the Due Process Clause, which provides that "[n]o person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." As the Supreme Court observed long ago, "[m]any controversies have raged about the cryptic and abstract words of the Due Process Clause," Mullane v. Cent. Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 313 (1950), and this case is no exception.

There are three basic elements to a procedural due process claim: there must be (1) a deprivation; (2) of life, liberty, or property; (3) without due process of law. Propert v. District of Columbia, 948 F.2d 1327, 1331 (D.C. Cir. 1991). "The fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard 'at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.'" Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333 (1976) (quoting Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552 (1965)). However, it is equally fundamental that due process is "not a technical conception with a fixed conception unrelated to time, place and circumstances;" rather, it is "flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands." Id. at 334.

Consistent with these principles, "[t]he precise form of notice and the precise kind of hearing required [in a given circumstance] depend[] upon a balancing of the competing public and private interests involved." Propert, 948 F.2d at 1332. In determining what process is due, three distinct factors are considered-commonly referred to as the "Mathews factors," a reference to the Supreme Court decision in which they were first articulated:

First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the [g]overnment's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.

Mathews, 424 U.S. at 335. "Depending on the tilt of the Mathews balance in a particular case, the usual requirement of written notice may be relaxed, and the timing and content of the hearing may vary." Propert, 948 F.2d at 1332 (internal citation omitted); see also Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 434 (1982) ("[T]he timing and nature of the required hearing will depend on appropriate accommodation of the competing interests involved") (internal quotation marks omitted). Given the intensely fact-based nature of the inquiry, the Supreme Court has chastised courts that have adopted a "sweeping and categorical" approach to the Due Process Clause. Gilbert v. Homar, 520 U.S. 924, 931 (1997).

2. Municipal Liability: "Policy or Custom"

At the second stage, the plaintiff must establish that a "policy or custom" caused the alleged predicate constitutional violation. Baker, 326 F.3d at 1306. The inquiry again divides into two: the plaintiff must first establish the existence of a "policy or custom"; thereafter, the plaintiff must establish a causal link between the "policy or custom" and the alleged constitutional harm.

a. "Policy or Custom"

In the first instance, the plaintiff must "identify and define the particular policy or custom at issue; only then can the more difficult question of whether such a policy or custom existed be addressed." Cox v. District of Columbia, 821 F. Supp. 1, 11 (D.D.C. 1993). Beginning with the Supreme Court's seminal decision in Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), courts have identified a variety of ways that a municipality may adopt a "policy or custom" sufficient to support municipal liability. Common to all is the overarching principle that a municipality may be held liable under Section 1983 only for its own violations of federal law. Los Angeles Cnty., Cal. v. Humphries, __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. 447, 452 (2010).

Mindful that their boundaries may be porous and that courts should avoid unnecessary formalism in approaching the subject, there are four basic categories of municipal action sufficient to support liability under Section 1983. These include:

1. Express Municipal Policy: The first basis for municipal liability is also the least controversial: a municipality may be held liable where it expressly adopts an official policy that results in the alleged constitutional harm. Baker, 326 F.3d at 1306; see also Monell, 436 U.S. at 690 (a municipality may be held liable where "the action . . . implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, ...


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