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Gregory English v. District of Columbia

September 30, 2011

GREGORY ENGLISH, PLAINTIFF.
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Gregory English is a patient involuntarily committed at Saint Elizabeths, a public psychiatric institution. English alleges due process violations, as well as an array of state and common law claims that all stem from the hospital's allegedly unlawful withdrawal of $2150.00 from his patient account and its application toward the costs of his treatment. The claims are brought against the District of Columbia and several individuals, all named in their official capacities -- Adrian Fenty, as mayor of D.C., Stephen Baron, Director of the D.C. Department of Mental Health ("DMH") , Michael Neff, Chief of Administrative Operations of DMH, Anne Weiss, Deputy Director of the Office of Accountability of DMH, Joyce Jeter, Fiscal Officer for DMH, Dr. Patrick Canavan, CEO of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Anthea Seymour, COO of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, and Walter Valliere, Chief Administrative Officer of Saint Elizabeths Hospital ("Defendants"). Defendants have moved to dismiss all the claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons explained below, the motion to dismiss is granted.

BACKGROUND

English alleges the following facts. Saint Elizabeths is a public psychiatric institution run by the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health ("DMH"). Compl. ¶ 1. The hospital was established in 1855 as a federal institution, but control over it was transferred to the District of Columbia in 1987. Id. ¶ 23. English was adjudged not guilty by reason of insanity, and has been involuntarily committed to Saint Elizabeths since 1982. Id. ¶¶ 11, 23.Patients who were housed in maximum security wards, which included English, were not permitted to hold personal funds. Instead, Saint Elizabeths established and managed accounts in order to allow patients to access funds for their personal use. English had maintained such a patient account since at least 1988. Patients could access the funds in their accounts by making a request to their assigned social worker, although the number and frequency of such requests, as well as the maximum allowable withdrawal amounts, were restricted by the hospital. Id. ¶¶ 19-20 & 22. For instance, English claims that patients were only allowed to withdraw funds once every two weeks in increments of $100 for on-ward use, $300 for off-site group visits, and $500 to be sent to a relative. He further alleges that the fulfillment of fund requests could take up to three weeks. Id. ¶ 22. Moreover, English states that no social worker had been located on his ward for at least a month. Id.

Sometime in 2004, English participated in "Stamps for a Living," an occupational therapy program run by Saint Elizabeths. As part of that program, English removed stamps from envelopes received by or donated to the hospital for later sale or distribution to collectors, and earned wages for his work. Id. ¶ 18. English earned around $6.55 an hour in 2008 and 2009. Id. ¶ 19. He deposited these wages into his patient account. By July 28, 2009, his account contained $2250.00. Id. ¶ 19. English alleges that, at all times, he believed that he was the only one who could remove funds from his account, and was never told that Saint Elizabeths could remove his funds without his permission. Id. ¶ 28.

On July 14, 2009, English signed and dated an Administrative Consent Form authorizing Saint Elizabeths to receive insurance benefits otherwise payable to English, and allowing Saint Elizabeths to apply for benefits on English's behalf. Id. ¶ 30 & Ex. 2. English alleges that the Administrative Consent Form failed to state that Saint Elizabeths was authorized to withdraw funds from English's patient account "or provide information that [English] is otherwise responsible for the costs associated with his care" Id.*fn1 On July 28, 2009, English received an invoice from Saint Elizabeths' billing department, which assessed a charge of ten dollars ($10) per day against English for the costs of his care from July 1, 2008 to January 31, 2009. Compl.¶ 29 & Ex. 1. The invoice stated that English had a "financial obligation to Saint Elizabeths hospital" for $2150.00, and that, if no payment was made within seven days, the hospital "reserve[d] the right to apply any of [his] funds held by the hospital in full or partial satisfaction of this debt." Id. ¶¶ 29, 31. The invoice also stated "we have suspended additional charges . . . so as to maintain a minimum of $100.00 in the patient fund account for your benefit." Id. Ex. 1.

English alleges that this was the first invoice he had received during his entire commitment at Saint Elizabeths. Id. ¶ 32. The invoice provided a phone number that English could call for any questions he had with respect to the bill. Id. Ex. 1. It also stated that English could submit a written appeal within seven days of receiving the bill, which English did by mailing a letter to the address provided two days after he received the bill. He did not receive a response. Id. ¶ 33. Subsequently, in early August 2009, Saint Elizabeths removed $2150.00 from English's account. English alleges that he was informed of this removal by his social worker. Id. ¶ 34.

English then challenged the removal of the funds through DMH's grievance process. On September 14, 2009, he filed a Form C -- a Consumer's Form for Filing a Grievance. He described his grievance as relating to "get[ting] my money back & keeping it." Id. ¶ 35 & Ex. 3. On September 29, 2009, DMH responded through a Form D, which attached a September 15, 2009 letter from Walter Valliere, Chief Administrative Officer of DMH, determining that Saint Elizabeths properly took the funds to "extinguish [English's] debt," and stating that "D.C. law specifically requires that [English] pay for the costs of [his] care at Saint Elizabeths." Id. ¶ 36 & Ex. 4. English then requested an external hearing before an independent reviewer pursuant to D.C. Code § 7-1231.12(b) and D.C. Mun. Regs. 22A § 300 et. seq. That hearing was held on November 19, 2009, and included testimony by English, Valliere, and other witnesses, though English's social worker, who was listed as a "required attendee," did not appear. Id. ¶¶ 37-40. English testified that he did not read the Administrative Consent Form before signing it, but that his understanding -- based on statements made by hospital staff -- was that the form discussed the hospital's right to apply for Medicaid benefits on his behalf. Id. ¶ 47 & Ex. 5.

On November 27, 2009, the independent reviewer issued a non-binding Advisory Opinion concluding that English's grievance had some merit and that the hospital lacked clear policies and guidelines in administering the program of charging patients for their care and recouping such amounts from their patient accounts. The reviewer recommended that English's funds be put in escrow pending judicial review. Id. ¶¶ 41-44. English did not receive a copy of the Advisory Opinion until January 6, 2010, which DMH claimed was "due to a serious mix-up with the delivery." Id. ¶ 41. On January 13, 2010, English responded to the Advisory Opinion, asking DMH either to return the funds to English's account or, alternatively, to adopt the recommendation of the independent reviewer. Id. ¶¶ 45-46; id. Ex. 6. DMH did not respond. Id. ¶ 46.*fn2

On January 29, 2010, English filed a Notice of Claim pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-309 with the District of Columbia's Office of Risk Management stating English's intent to file a claim against the District and DMH. Id. ¶ 53. English then filed his complaint in this Court on September 8, 2010 against the District of Columbia and several individuals, all named in their official capacities -- Adrian Fenty, as mayor of D.C., Stephen Baron, Director of DMH , Michael Neff, Chief of Administrative Operations of DMH, Anne Weiss, Deputy Director of the Office of Accountability of DMH, Joyce Jeter, Fiscal Officer for DMH, Dr. Patrick Canavan, CEO of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Anthea Seymour, COO of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, and Walter Valliere, Chief Administrative Officer of Saint Elizabeths Hospital.

The complaint asserts nine counts against the defendants: (1) deprivation of English's right to property without due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) breach of fiduciary duty; (3) violation of the trust or bailment relationship; (4) violation of the District of Columbia Administrative Procedure Act ("DCAPA"), D.C. Code § 2-510; (5) violation of D.C. debtor laws; (6) unlawful pre-judgment garnishment of wages; (7) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (8) conversion; and (9) declaratory relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201. Defendants subsequently moved to dismiss all counts and English has opposed the motion. On June 30, 2011, the Court held oral argument on the pending motion to dismiss.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

All that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require of a complaint is that it contain "'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); accord Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief," a plaintiff must furnish "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56; see also Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); accord Atherton v. Dist. of Columbia Office of the Mayor, 567 F.3d 672, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2009). A complaint is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. This amounts to a "two-pronged approach" under which a court first identifies the factual allegations entitled to an assumption of truth and then determines "whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 1950-51.

The notice pleading rules are not meant to impose a great burden on a plaintiff. Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 512-13 (2002). When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged by a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the plaintiff's factual allegations must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in his or her favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993); Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56). The plaintiff must be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). However, "the court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Nor does the court accept "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," or "naked assertions [of unlawful misconduct] devoid of further factual enhancement." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949-50 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Aktieselskabet AF 21. November 21 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 17 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (explaining that the court has "never accepted legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations").

DISCUSSION

In considering a motion to dismiss, the Court considers "the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated by reference in the complaint, matters of which the court may take judicial notice, and matters of public record. Felder v. Johanns, 595 F. Supp. 2d 46, 58-59 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Defendants urge this Court to dismiss all of English's claims, but the gravamen of the parties' arguments focus on English's claim that defendants violated his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -- specifically, English asserts that defendants unlawfully withdrew $2150.00 from his account, depriving him of this property without due process of law in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments*fn3 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Compl. ¶¶ 55-61. He alleges that none of the policies or procedures in place provided him with adequate notice or an adequate opportunity to respond. Id. ¶ 57. In other words, English challenges the sufficiency of the notice, as well as the adequacy of the process, he received, claiming that neither the pre-deprivation notice nor the grievance procedures satisfied the requirements of procedural due process. In defendants' view, English's due process claim should be dismissed because English failed to exhaust his administrative remedies; in the alternative, defendants contend that dismissal is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) ...


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