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Estate of Mikal R. Gaither, By and Through Pearl Gaither, Personal Representative v. District of Columbia

February 26, 2011


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


Plaintiff Pearl Gaither ("Plaintiff") commenced this action on July 1, 2003, as the personal representative of the estate of Mikal R. Gaither. Named as defendants are the District of Columbia, Odie Washington, Marvin L. Brown, Dennis Harrison, Zerline Brooks, Gounod Toppin, and Joseph White (collectively, "Defendants"). Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's [201] Motion for Leave to File to [sic] Amended Complaint ("Motion to Amend"), which Defendants have opposed. Based on the parties' submissions, the attachments thereto, the relevant authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court shall GRANT Plaintiff's [201] Motion to Amend.*fn1


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

Plaintiff first commenced this action on July 1, 2003, as the personal representative of the estate of Mikal R. Gaither ("Gaither"), who was fatally stabbed on December 14, 2002 while incarcerated at the District of Columbia Central Detention Facility (the "Jail"). See Compl., Docket No. [1]. On July 21, 2003, before anyone had appeared as a defendant in this action, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint as a matter of right. See Am. Compl., Docket No. [5]. Subsequently, upon Defendants' motion and with Plaintiff's consent, the action was stayed for over three years-from October 8, 2003 through January 4, 2007-pending resolution of a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding Gaither's death. See Min. Order (Oct. 8, 2003); Min. Order (Jan. 4, 2007).

Shortly after the stay was lifted, Plaintiff filed a second amended complaint, which remains the current iteration of the complaint in this action. See Second Am. Compl. ("2d Am. Compl."), Docket No. [34]. Therein, Plaintiff asserted three causes of action against Defendants. In addition to claims for negligence/survival and wrongful death, which are not immediately relevant here, Plaintiff asserted a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), predicated upon alleged violations of Gaither's rights under the Fifth Amendment. 2d Am. Compl.¶¶ 62-68. More specifically, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants subjected Gaither to a "serious and unreasonable risk of violent injury as a result of the unconstitutional conditions at the Jail that were well-known," including "pervasive violence; overcrowding; a shortage of necessary correctional officers; inadequate training of correctional officers; negligent supervision of correctional officers; inadequate policies, procedures, and practices for critical staffing, classification, and security; and failure to enforce such policies, procedures, and practices relating to critical staffing and security that were in effect." Id. ¶ 63. According to Plaintiff, Defendants' "ongoing failure to address these unconstitutionally dangerous conditions was the result of a conscious and deliberate decision or of reckless disregard for the safety of inmates at the Jail," and violated Gaither's rights under the Fifth Amendment. Id. ¶¶ 64-66, 69-71.

On September 8, 2009, the Court issued a 61-page decision resolving the parties' respective cross-motions for summary judgment. See Estate of Gaither ex rel. Gaither v. District of Columbia, 655 F. Supp. 2d 69 (D.D.C. 2009). Therein, the Court chastised both parties for failing to articulate the legal principles governing Plaintiff's Section 1983 claim. Id. at 85. Most notably, the Court observed that, while the "Constitution imposes certain obligations on prison officials to ensure the health and safety of incarcerated individuals, whether that right is guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment (as Plaintiff alleges) or under the Eighth Amendment depends upon the status of the incarcerated individual-a point that neither party [] addressed." Id. The Court explained:

It is well established that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment" imposes various obligations upon prison officials, including as is relevant to the case at hand, a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners. It is equally well settled, however, that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition applies only to persons who are subject to "punishment" which excludes pretrial detainees who have not been adjudicated as guilty of any crime and are therefore not subject to "punishment." Accordingly, courts have recognized that pretrial detainees have an independent due-process right under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to humane conditions while incarcerated. Although the exact contours of a pretrial detainee's right under the Fifth Amendment have not yet been established, it is clear that the [Fifth] Amendment provides a pretrial detainee [protections] at least as great as the analogous Eighth Amendment right. Thus, although the rights under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments are comparable, it appears that the Fifth Amendment may provide a greater degree of protection to pretrial detainees who are not yet subject to punishment of any kind.

Id. at 85-86 (internal citations omitted and quotation marks and notations altered). In light of this distinction, the question of whether "Gaither-as an individual who had already pled guilty, but had not yet been sentenced-[was] a pretrial detainee, whose rights are guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment, or [was] [] a convicted inmate, whose rights are guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment," was of potentially constitutional significance. Id. at 86. Indeed, if an individual, like Gaither, who has pled guilty but has not yet been sentenced should be treated as a convicted inmate, rather than a pretrial detainee, Plaintiff's claim that Defendants violated Gaither's Fifth Amendment rights would be "on shaky ground." Id. at 87. But because the parties completely failed to address Gaither's detention status, and because the same basic standard of "deliberate indifference" is generally applied to both Fifth and Eighth Amendment claims, the Court declined to resolve the question of Gaither's status "on the inadequate record [then] before it" and proceeded to address in detail the factual disputes that otherwise precluded summary judgment on Plaintiff's Section 1983 claim. Id.

Immediately on the heels of the Court's decision, the parties filed motions for reconsideration and proceeded to brief those motions. See Defs.' Mot. for Recons., Docket No. [195]; Pl.'s Mot. for Partial Recons., Docket No. [196]. Then, on October 20, 2009, six weeks after the issuance of the Court's decision, Plaintiff filed the present [201] Motion to Amend, through which Plaintiff seeks leave to amend her complaint in order to plead her Section 1983 claim in the alternative under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.*fn2 See generally 3d Am. Compl.


Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may amend its pleadings once as a matter of course within twenty-one days after service or within twenty-one days after service of a responsive pleading. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1). Where, as here, a party seeks to amend its pleadings outside that time period, they may do so only with the opposing party's written consent or the district court's leave. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). The decision whether to grant leave to amend a complaint is within the discretion of the district court, but leave "should be freely given unless there is a good reason, such as futility, to the contrary." Willoughby v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 100 F.3d 999, 1003 (D.C. Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1197 (1997). As the Supreme Court has observed:

If the underlying facts or circumstances relied upon by a plaintiff may be a proper subject of relief, he ought to be afforded an opportunity to test his claim on the merits. In the absence of any apparent or declared reason-such as undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, futility of amendment, etc.-the leave sought should, as the rules require, be "freely given."

Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). With these principles in mind, the Court turns to the merits of ...

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