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Vanessa Coleman v. District of Columbia

December 7, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge,



This action was filed by plaintiff Vanessa Coleman asserting, inter alia, a claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights and also a common law claim for negligent hiring, training, and supervision. Defendant District of Columbia has moved for partial judgment on the pleadings on these claims. For the reasons contained in this Memorandum Opinion, this Court GRANTS defendant's motion for partial judgment on the pleadings.


Vanessa Coleman was employed by the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department ("FEMS") as a Captain at the time of her termination. Third. Am. Compl. ¶6 ("Complaint"). On March 12, 2008, Coleman and her truck company responded to the scene of a fire at a Mt. Pleasant apartment building. Id. ¶13. A few weeks after the fire, Battalion Chief John Lee cited Coleman for failing to report the conditions in the basement of the building. Id. ¶16. Coleman challenged this citation before a different Battalion chief, Robert Kane, who increased her penalty from a written citation to a 24 hour suspension. Id. ¶18.

Coleman then began a lengthy campaign to clear her record, many details of which are not relevant for the purposes of this motion. ¶¶17-53. During this time, Assistant Chief Brian Lee ordered Coleman to complete a fitness for duty examination, an examination which included a psychological evaluation. Coleman refused to complete the psychological examination. On January 13, 2009, FEMS notified Coleman of proposed disciplinary action for insubordination based on her failure to complete the examination as ordered on three occasions. See Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Leave to File a Second Am. Compl. Ex. A at 1. The notice further stated that a trial would take place before a FEMS Fire Trial Board ("Trial Board"). Id.

In July 2009, the hearing before the Trial Board concluded and on September 1, 2009, Dennis Rubin, Chief of FEMS, issued a Trial Board Final Letter of Decision. See Defs.' Opp'n Ex. B. In his decision letter, Chief Rubin notified Coleman that the Trial Board had found her guilty of two of the three charges of insubordination and that he was adopting the Trial Board's recommendation that she be demoted to the rank of Sergeant. Id. at 1. Chief Rubin also adopted the recommendation that Coleman submit to a full fitness for duty evaluation, including a psychological examination, by October 1, 2009. Id. Chief Rubin informed her that "[f]ailure to complete the fitness for duty tests will result in termination, as recommended by the Fire Trial Board." Id. After Coleman did not attend her October 1, 2009 fitness for duty examination, Chief Rubin terminated Coleman's employment with FEMS. Compl. ¶67.


A motion for judgment on the pleadings is permitted after the pleadings are closed, "but early enough not to delay trial." Fed. R. Civ P. 12(c). The analysis of this motion is essentially equivalent to a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Cloonan v. Holder, 768 F. Supp. 2d 154, 160 (D.D.C. 2011). Therefore, judgment on the pleadings is appropriate when a complaint fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). To overcome this hurdle, a complaint must 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) (internal quotations omitted). The Court must "accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint," Atherton v. District of Columbia, 567 F.3d 672, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2009), and grant a plaintiff "the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). However, the Court may not "accept inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint." Id. In other words, "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009); see also Atherton, 567 F.3d at 681 (holding that a complaint must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged").

A. 28 U.S.C. § 1983 Claim

To state a claim for a § 1983 violation, Coleman must allege both "a violation of [her] rights under the Constitution or federal law" and "that the municipality's custom or policy caused the violations." Warren v. Dist. of Columbia, 353 F.3d 36, 38 (D.C. Cir. 2004). Coleman contends that defendants violated her rights under the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Because this Court finds that Coleman did not properly allege the "custom or policy" requirement, this Court need not determine whether Coleman sufficiently plead a violation of her constitutional rights.

Coleman "bears the burden of pleading the existence of a municipal custom or practice. . . ." Bonaccorsy v. Dist. of Columbia, 685 F. Supp. 2d 18, 27 (D.D.C. 2010). Coleman must allege an "'affirmative link,' such that a municipal policy was the 'moving force' behind the constitutional violation." Baker v. Dist. of Columbia, 326 F.3d 1302, 1306 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). Coleman may demonstrate such a municipal policy based on: (1) "the explicit setting of a policy by the government that violates the Constitution," (2) "the action of a policy maker within the government," (3) "the adoption through a knowing failure to act by a policy maker of actions by his subordinates that are so consistent that they have become 'custom,'" or (4) "the failure of the government to respond to a need . . . in such a manner as to show 'deliberate indifference' to the risk that not addressing the need will result in constitutional violations." Id. This Court addresses each of these in turn.

1.Explicit Setting of a Policy in Violation of the Constitution

Coleman first argues that a discriminatory municipal custom or practice exists based on "the explicit setting of a policy by the [District] that violates the Constitution." Id. The District of Columbia can be liable under section 1983 when "the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers." Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). "[E]ven a single decision by ...

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