The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge
Plaintiff Bruno Mpoy was a special-education teacher at Ludlow Elementary School in the District of Columbia during the 2007-08 school year, following which he was terminated. He believes that his termination was in retaliation for his disclosure to then-District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and others that Ludlow's Principal, Donald Presswood, had encouraged him to alter student test scores. As a result of his termination, Plaintiff brought this suit, which alleges six causes of action against the District of Columbia, Michelle Rhee, and Donald Presswood (collectively, "the District Defendants"). Two of these counts also name The New Teacher Project (TNTP), the non-profit corporation that recruited Plaintiff to teach at Ludlow. The District Defendants and TNTP have each now filed a Motion to Dismiss, which raise numerous challenges to Plaintiff's causes of action. The Court ultimately will let much of the case proceed against the District Defendants, but it will dismiss the suit against TNTP.
According to Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint, which must be presumed true for purposes of this Motion, he was accepted into The New Teacher Project/DC Teaching Fellows (DCTF) program as a DC Teaching Fellow "to serve as a special education teacher in DC Public Schools." SAC, ¶¶ 28-30. In exchange for his teaching, he was to "receive tuition support for working towards and receiving his teaching certification at George Washington University ('GWU')." Id., ¶ 31. "DCPS, DCTF, and/or TNTP paid at least fifty-percent (50%) of Plaintiff's tuition for his enrollment at GWU." Id., ¶ 36. Plaintiff began attending his GWU classes in summer 2007. Id., ¶ 37.
"Plaintiff was offered in writing a position and committed to teach in DCPS for a minimum of four years." Id., ¶ 32. He was employed "as a special education teacher for DCPS at Ludlow Elementary School [ ] during the 2007-2008 school year." Id., ¶ 2. Donald Presswood, the principal of Ludlow, "instructed teachers [there], including [Plaintiff], to change and falsify student records, to alter test scores on standardized assessments, and to fabricate levels of student achievement." Id., ¶ 4. Plaintiff refused to comply with these instructions. Id., ¶ 5.
Plaintiff also "observed other suspicious practices in testing and grading procedures at Ludlow, and became aware of anomalies between test results and demonstrated student capabilities." Id., ¶ 6. Plaintiff was "investigated, harassed, threatened, and suspended" in retaliation for his "refusal to follow Mr. Presswood's instructions and participate in fraudulent, unethical, and otherwise wrongful activity." Id., ¶ 7.
Plaintiff reported this to Michelle Rhee, then-Chancellor of DCPS, and to DCPS administrators, informing them of "Presswood's falsifying student test scores and performance . [and the] multiple problems he encountered while teaching." Id., ¶¶ 9-10. Rhee and DCPS administrators did not respond. Id., ¶ 11. Instead, Plaintiff "was investigated, harassed, threatened, and ultimately terminated from his teaching position at the direction of Chancellor Rhee, DCPS, and Mr. Presswood" in retaliation for Plaintiff's reports. Id., ¶¶ 12-13.
"As a result of his wrongful termination, Plaintiff stopped receiving tuition support from DCTF, TNTP, and/or DCPS." Id., ¶ 147. Plaintiff does not have "the financial means necessary to continue the GWU masters program." Id., ¶ 108. Neither is Plaintiff able "to find meaningful employment as an educational professional because of his wrongful termination from DCPS and the DCTF program." Id., ¶ 107.
Plaintiff sets forth six counts in his Second Amended Complaint: deprivation of his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, retaliation in violation of the D.C. Whistleblower Act, retaliation in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act, breach of contract for wrongful termination, breach of contract for failure to pay tuition as promised, and civil conspiracy to wrongfully terminate Plaintiff. All counts are asserted against the District Defendants, and the last two also name TNTP.
The District Defendants and TNTP now each seek to dismiss the suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), as failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or, in the alternative, under Rule 56 for summary judgment.
Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails to "state a claim upon which relief can be granted." When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged under Rule 12(b)(6), the factual allegations presented in it must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in plaintiff's favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993). Although 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), and "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), "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) (internal quotation omitted). Plaintiff must put forth "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. The Court need not accept as true "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Though a plaintiff may survive a 12(b)(6) motion even if "recovery is very remote and unlikely," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)), the facts alleged in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555.
In weighing a motion to dismiss, a court "may consider only the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which [the court] may take judicial notice." EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997).
The District Defendants and TNTP each move to dismiss the claims against them on various grounds. Because the two Motions present no overlapping arguments, the Court will address them separately. It will first analyze the points raised by the District Defendants and then those by TNTP.
The District Defendants raise myriad challenges to Plaintiff's causes of action. For ease of organization, the Court will discuss them in the following order. First, the Court will analyze the District's contention that Plaintiff fails to set forth a cognizable claim for municipal liability under § 1983. Next, it will consider whether the claims against Michelle Rhee and Donald Presswood in their official capacities should be dismissed. Third, it will address whether both breach-of-contract counts and the civil-conspiracy count are deficient for Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Fourth, it will discuss whether Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed for failure to satisfy the notice requirements of D.C. Code § 12-309. Finally, it will assess whether punitive damages can be obtained against the District of Columbia.*fn1
1. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -- Count I
Count I asserts a deprivation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -- namely, unlawful retaliation for Plaintiff's exercise of his protected First Amendment speech rights. In moving to dismiss, the District Defendants are correct when they say that, to establish municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, "Plaintiff must establish that the deprivation of his constitutional rights was caused by a custom, policy or practice of the District." Mot. at 5-6 (citing Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691-94 (1978)). As he points out in his Opposition, however, and as Count I of the SAC makes clear, Plaintiff is not claiming municipal liability under § 1983; instead, this count "relate[s] only to the retaliatory acts of Rhee and Presswood in their individual capacities." Opp. at 8.
This Circuit has adopted the "course of proceedings" test to determine in what capacity a plaintiff seeks to impose liability on a government official if that capacity is not specified in the complaint. In Daskalea v. Dist. of Columbia, 227 F.3d 433 (D.C. Cir. 2000), the court held:
Neither the complaint nor any other pleading filed by plaintiff indicates whether Moore was charged in her official or her individual capacity. In some circuits, that would be the end of the matter, as they require a plaintiff who seeks personal liability to plead specifically that the suit is brought against the defendant in her individual capacity. Although it has not definitively resolved the issue ... the Supreme Court has typically looked instead to the "course of proceedings" to determine the nature of an action. Following the Supreme Court's lead, this circuit has joined those of its sisters that employ the "course of proceedings" approach.
Id. at 448 (internal citation, footnotes, and quotation omitted). Utilizing that test, the Court looks at the complaint, the pleadings, and other indicia to determine if the individual defendants could have been put "on notice that [they are] being sued in [their] individual capacit[ies]." Id. (considering complaint, answer to complaint, trial briefs, pretrial deposition, and statements made during trial to determine whether, under course-of-proceedings analysis, official was sued in her individual capacity). The Court believes it is manifest that Plaintiff is suing Rhee and Presswood in their individual capacities only; indeed, Plaintiff's Opposition expressly so states. See Opp. at 8. To eliminate any ...