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Steinberg v. District of Fenty

United States District Court, District Circuit

July 2, 2013

STEVE STEINBERG, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge

At a hearing on June 12, 2013, the Court granted defendant's renewed motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 77, as to plaintiffs claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District. See Minute Order June 12, 2013. This opinion provides the Court's reasoning for that holding.

Also at the June 12, 2013 hearing, the Court gave plaintiff an opportunity to provide additional authority on whether the Court should exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiffs remaining claims for injunctive and declaratory relief under the D.C. Code. Having reviewed this additional briefing, the Court now declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over these remaining D.C. Code claims against the District. Rather than dismissing the claims, the Court will give plaintiff the opportunity to voluntarily dismiss the action within five days of this opinion.

I.BACKGROUND[1]

"In 2004 the District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals (OEA) ordered the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Agency (FEMS) to reinstate plaintiff Steve Steinberg as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and award him back pay. For eight years the agency did neither." Steinberg v. Dist. of Columbia, 901 F.Supp.2d 63 (D.D.C. 2012). Mr. Steinberg filed this action in 2009, claiming violations of his constitutional rights, seeking reinstatement, back pay, and damages. Id.

In 2012, "Mr. Steinberg received a letter from Chief Ellerbe advising him that he would be conditionally reinstated and awarded retroactive back pay and benefits." Id; see also Reinstatement Letter, July 26, 2012, Defs.' Ex. I, ECF No. 77-1.

Two previous opinions substantially narrowed the issues of the case, see id.; Steinberg v. Gray, 815 F.Supp.2d 293 (D.D.C. 2011), [2] leaving only three outstanding claims: (1) a damages claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District of Columbia for procedural due process violations; (2) a claim against current Fire Chief Ellerbe, in his official capacity, for injunctive relief (reinstatement) under the D.C. Code; and (3) a claim against Daryl Staats, the Chief Financial Officer for FEMS, for injunctive relief (back pay) under the D.C. Code.

Mr. Steinberg deposed former Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin, with leave of Court, after the Court's most recent opinion, see Order, Dec. 10, 2012, ECF No. 67; Rubin Dep., Defs.' Ex. O, Jan. 29, 2013, ECF No. 77-1, and defendants filed the instant motion shortly thereafter.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment should be granted when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the case. Id. A dispute is genuine if the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. The "evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id. at 255. The non-movant, however, must establish more than "the existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of his position, id. at 252, and may not rely solely on allegations or conclusory statements, Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

B. Monell Liability

Municipalities and other local governmental bodies may be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Monell v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 689 (1978). However, municipal liability is limited: "a municipality may not be held liable under § 1983 solely because it employs a tortfeasor." Bd. of Cnty. Commis. of Bryan Cnty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403 (1997). The Supreme Court has "consistently refused to hold municipalities liable under a theory of respondeat superior." Id. Instead, a plaintiff seeking to impose liability on a municipality under § 1983 must identify a municipal "policy" or "custom" that caused his or her injury by pointing to, for instance, an action of a final policy maker within the government. See Baker v. Dist. of Columbia, 326 F.3d 1302, 1306 (D.C. Cir. 2003).

Under this method of showing policy or custom, the Supreme Court has noted the "special difficulties" that arise when "it is contended that a municipal policymaker has delegated his policymaking authority to another official":

If the mere exercise of discretion by an employee could give rise to a constitutional violation, the result would be indistinguishable from respondeat superior liability. If, however, a city's lawful policymakers could insulate the government from liability simply by delegating their policymaking authority to others, § 1983 could not serve its intended purpose.

City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 126 (1988). In providing guidance to courts attempting to work through these difficulties in cases, the Court emphasized that "the mere failure to investigate the basis of a subordinate's discretionary decisions does not amount to a delegation of policymaking authority." Id. at 130.

III. MR. STEINBERG'S SECTION 1983 CLAIM AGAINST THE DISTRICT DOES NOT SURVIVE SUMMARY JUDGMENT

In order for his section 1983 claim against the District to survive this motion for summary judgment, Mr. Steinberg must identify a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the unconstitutional action was taken pursuant to a policy or custom.

Mr. Steinberg argues that one of the Fire Chiefs—acting as a final policy maker—was the "moving force" behind the decision to ignore the 2004 OEA order mandating his reinstatement and back pay. PL's Opp'n 9-11. He points to two types of circumstantial evidence in support of this theory. First, he points to evidence that the Fire Chief would ordinarily be the person in charge of reinstating an officer, including statements to this effect by Assistant Fire Chief Kenneth Jackson, [3] former Fire Chief Adrian Thompson (2001-2006), [4] former Fire Chief Dennis Rubin (2007-2011), [5] and current fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe (2011-present).[6]

Second, he points to evidence that notice of his situation and the unfulfilled 2004 OEA order was provided to agents of FEMS in the form of service of process on four occasions between 2004 and 2009:

(1) The 2004 OEA order was itself mailed to D.C. Corporation Counsel attorney Kevin McDougald on May 12, 2004, see PL's Opp'n 11; see also Defs.' Ex. A, Steinberg v. D.C. Fire & Emergency Med. Servs. Dep't, OEA Matter No. 1601-0183-97, (Hollis, A.J.) (May 12, 2004), ECF No. 77-1;
(2) Mr. Steinberg's 2008 motion for enforcement of the OEA order was mailed to D.C. Office of the Attorney General attorney Kevin Turner on July 17, 2008, PL's Opp'n 11; Employee's Mot. for Enforcement, PL's Ex. E, Steinberg v. D.C. Fire & Emergency Med. Servs. Dep't, OEA Matter No. 1601-0183-97, ECF No. 81-2;
(3) The OEA's subsequent Order on Compliance was mailed to Mr. Turner on August 13, 2008, PL's Opp'n 11; Addendum Decision on Compliance, PL's Ex. F, Steinberg v. D.C. Fire & Emergency Med. Servs. Dep't, OEA Matter No. 1601-0183-97, ECF No. 81-2; and
(4) The complaint and summons in this lawsuit was sent by certified mail to Chief Rubin on July 17, 2009, but was signed for by Deborah Bass. See Return of Service, ECF No. 2-2.

Mr. Steinberg does not offer any evidence that these agents passed along the notice they received to the Fire Chiefs. Nor did Mr. Steinberg's counsel apparently depose any of these agents.

In response, defendants rely on statements by Chiefs Thompson[7] and Rubin[8] disclaiming any awareness (while in office) of Mr. Steinberg's case and of the unfulfilled 2004 OEA decision up to and through the date on which this case was filed and served on defendants in 2009. Defendants also note that Chief Ellerbe acted to bring the agency into compliance with the 2004 order soon after he took office by sending Mr. Steinberg the reinstatement letter in 2012.

Analysis:

The Court's previous opinion in this case concluded that "Mr. Steinberg ha[d] offered substantial evidence tracing these actions to the Chief such that he could survive a motion for summary judgment on this claim. Steinberg, 901 F.Supp.2d at 73. Since that opinion was issued, the record before the Court has expanded: the parties subsequently deposed former Chief Rubin, whose testimony provides critical additional support for defendants' theory. Based on the record now before the Court, no reasonable jury could conclude that any of the Chiefs had notice of Mr. Steinberg's case and failed to act. Accordingly, Mr. Steinberg cannot establish municipal liability, and the Court now grants defendants' renewed motion for summary judgment as to Mr. Steinberg's damages claim against the District.

Mr. Steinberg's evidence showing that the Chief would ordinarily be responsible for reinstatement of an employee does not suffice to allow his claim to survive summary judgment. No reasonable jury could weigh this type of evidence against the Chiefs' testimony and find in favor of Mr. Steinberg.

True, as Mr. Steinberg's counsel pointed out at Oral Argument held on June 6, 2013, and again at the hearing conducted on June 12, 2013, Chief Thompson does not testify that he was never notified of Mr. Steinberg's case, but that he has no present memory of this occurring. See Thompson Dep. 7:12-22, 22:1-4 (quoted above at note 8). Notably, counsel's similar characterization of Chief Rubin's testimony, made at the hearing on June 12, 2013 regarding, is inaccurate. Chief Rubin went beyond disclaiming any present memory of Mr. Steinberg's case and actually asserted that he was not made aware of it:

Q: You did not reinstate Mr. Steinberg with the fire department, correct?
A: I did not.
Q: And it's my understanding that you did not know about the order of reinstatement. Correct?
A: I was not aware of it, no, ma'am.
Q: So it's fair to say that you could not reinstate him because you did not know about the order to reinstate?
A: I was not aware.

Rubin Dep. 40:13-41:1. Even as to Chief Thompson, the distinction is important, but does not tip the balance in favor of plaintiff. Chief Thompson has no present recollection of having been notified of Mr. Steinberg's case, and Mr. Steinberg has failed to introduce any evidence demonstrating that Chief Thompson was notified. A jury could only conclude that Chief Thompson was on notice based on speculation.

Even on the eve of trial, after the filing of the pretrial statement, the Court gave plaintiff an opportunity to point to any evidence whereby a jury verdict could be sustained that one of the Fire Chiefs before Ellerbe actually knew and he could not do so.

Similarly, Mr. Steinberg's evidence regarding service of process is not adequate to allow his claim to survive summary judgment. All of the four instances of service relied upon by Mr. Steinberg point to service on a party other than the Fire Chief. Defs.' Ex. A; PL's Ex. E; PL's Ex. F, Return of Service, ECF No. 2-2. But Mr. Steinberg has offered no evidence that any of these notices were ever passed along to the Fire Chief. No reasonable jury could weigh Mr. Steinberg's circumstantial evidence against the direct testimony from the fire Chiefs stating that they were not aware of Mr. Steinberg's case and find in favor of Mr. Steinberg. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247. Even if all of Mr. Steinberg's evidence is "believed, and all justifiable inferences are . . . drawn in his favor, " his claim cannot survive summary judgment here. Id. at 255.

Nor is it possible to impute the District's attorneys' knowledge of Mr. Steinberg's case to the Fire Chief by appealing to the common law of agency. Cf. PL's Opp'n 11; PL's Proposed Jury Instruction No. 1—Municipal Liability Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, ECF No. 95-3 ("[I]f you find that the acts of the Fire Chief or his Agent/attorney deprived Mr. Steinberg of his property rights, the District of Columbia is liable for such deprivations." (emphasis added)). Such a move is prohibited by the Supreme Court's repeated command that, when it comes to constitutional claims against municipalities, there is no respondeat superior liability. See, e.g., Connick, 131 S.Ct. at 1364; Bryan Cnty., 520 U.S. at 403. Indeed, at the hearing conducted on June 12, 2013, Mr. Steinberg's counsel conceded that respondeat superior liability was proscribed, but, with his next breath, asked the Court to find municipal liability here by imputing the act of an agent (i.e. a lawyer for the District of Columbia who was put on notice of Mr. Steinberg's case) to the principal (i.e. the Fire Chief). This attempted distinction between agency law and respondeat superior liability is unfounded—not least because respondeat superior seems, itself, to be a doctrine of agency law. See Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) (defining respondeat superior as "[t]he doctrine holding an employer or principal liable for the employee's or agent's wrongful acts committed within the scope of the employment or agency."). The Court rejects this supposed distinction, and with it, plaintiffs efforts to use agency law to circumvent the requirements of Monell.

Finally, at the June 12, 2013 hearing, Mr. Steinberg's counsel implored the Court not to allow the District to escape liability by insulating its leadership from difficult decisions—not to allow them to "bury their heads in the sand" while potentially unconstitutional conduct goes unchecked. In this respect, this case resembles Praprotnik, where the Supreme Court held that a man who claimed he had been fired from his municipal job in retaliation for First-Amendment-protected activities could not state a § 1983 claim against the municipality because the supervisors who decided to fire him were not final policy makers and because he could not show that those who were final policy makers actually participated in or approved of the decision to terminate his employment. 485 U.S. at 128-29. The Court explained:

Respondent contends that the record can be read to establish that his supervisors were angered by his 1980 appeal to the Civil Service Commission; that new supervisors in a new administration chose, for reasons passed on through some informal means, to retaliate against respondent two years later by transferring him to another agency; and that this transfer was part of a scheme that led, another year and a half later, to his layoff. Even if one assumes that all this was true, it says nothing about the actions of those whom the law established as the makers of municipal policy in matters of personnel administration.

Id. at 128 (emphasis added). As in Praprotnik, Mr. Steinberg's case must fail because he has failed to provide any evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that one of the final decision makers (i.e., the Fire Chiefs) was aware of his case, and thus can be charged with a decision to ignore the OEA order and not to reinstate him. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247. Because he cannot show "policy" or "custom" needed to establish municipal liability, his claim against the district will be dismissed.

IV. THE COURT DECLINES TO EXERCISE SUPPLEMENTAL JURISDICTION OVER PLAINTIFF'S D.C. CODE CLAIMS

Plaintiffs remaining claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are under D.C. Law, not federal law. See PL's Resp. 1, ECF No. 103 (conceding this characterization of his remaining claims). It is left to this Court's discretion as to whether to exercise supplemental jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367 over the remaining claims. Id. at 2. "[I]n the usual case in which all federal-law claims are dismissed before trial, the balance of factors to be considered under the pendent jurisdiction doctrine—judicial economy, convenience, fairness, and comity—will point toward declining to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims." Shekoyan v. Sibley Int'l, 409 F.3d 414, 424 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

Here, the Court finds these factors weigh in favor of declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. This Court's judicial economy would be served by declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. Comity would be served by allowing the D.C. Courts to address these remaining issues, which concern matters of D.C. law and administration. As to convenience and fairness, the Court takes comfort in the fact that the plaintiff will not be time-barred from refiling in the D.C. Courts as the statute of limitations is tolled while his claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was pending plus 30 days, so long as the plaintiff voluntarily dismisses his claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(d). Accordingly, the Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction and will allow plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss his action within five days of this opinion.

V. CONCLUSION

Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted as to Mr. Steinberg's section 1983 claim against the District, and plaintiff shall voluntarily dismiss his all of his remaining claims, which are under D.C. Law, within five days. An Order shall issue with this opinion.


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