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Gebretsadike v. Travelers Home & Marine Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

May 11, 2015


AWOKE GEBRETSADIKE, Plaintiff, Pro se, Washington, DC.



CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

Awoke Gebretsadike sought coverage from his insurance company for medical costs, lost wages, and other expenses stemming from a car accident with a hit-and-run driver. The insurance company--Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Company--denied the claim, contending that Mr. Gebretsadike had purchased only limited coverage and had not elected to invoke the coverage he did have within the timeframe required by the policy. Proceeding pro se, Gebretsadike sued Travelers in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for breach of contract, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, misrepresentation and omissions under the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Travelers removed the case to this Court and now moves to dismiss, arguing that Gebretsadike has misinterpreted his policy documents and that District of Columbia law precludes his tort and related damages claims. In response, Gebretsadike moves to remand, contending that Travelers has not established diversity jurisdiction, and disputes Travelers' arguments that he possessed a complete version of the policy from the outset and that he failed to invoke his personal injury protection coverage. The Court finds that it has diversity jurisdiction over the case and agrees with Travelers that District of Columbia law forecloses Gebretsadike's tort and related damages claims. The Court also concludes, however, that under the liberal pleading standards for pro se plaintiffs, Gebretsadike has alleged sufficient facts to support plausible breach of contract and District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act claims. Accordingly, the Court will grant Travelers' motion to dismiss in part and deny it in part.

I. Background

The following facts are drawn from Gebretsadike's complaint. The Court accepts them as true for the purpose of resolving Travelers' motion to dismiss. Gebretsadike, who is originally from Ethiopia, was granted political asylum to the United States in April 2010. Compl. at 1. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. Id. While Gebretsadike was driving to a restaurant on New Year's Eve in 2011, his car was struck by an unknown driver, causing him to lose consciousness briefly and suffer head and leg injuries. Id. at 1-2. He subsequently contacted Travelers about covering his medical costs and related expenses under his automobile insurance policy. Id. at 2-3. A Travelers representative instructed him to submit an affidavit stating that he did not have health insurance, an election form for his personal injury protection coverage, a medical release authorization, and a police report. Id. Gebretsadike alleges that he promptly returned these documents to Travelers despite his concern that electing to invoke his personal injury protection coverage would mean forfeiting legal claims against the hit-and-run driver. Id. Travelers also sent Gebretsadike a list of health care providers to contact, but Gebretsadike asserts that none of them would treat him because of confusion regarding whether Travelers would cover the costs. Id. at 3-4. While continuing to press Travelers to cover his medical costs and related expenses, Gebretsadike claims to have sought treatment at several clinics that serve uninsured or underinsured patients, as well as at medical centers affiliated with Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities. Id. at 4-8. Unable to work due to his injuries and having to pay for medical treatment and a rental car, Gebretsadike claims he reached the limits of his credit cards and was evicted from his home. Id. at 7. He eventually located pro bono lawyers to help him resolve his dispute with Travelers, who advised him that the version of the policy documents he had--the only documents he claims to have received when he initially purchased the policy--was not complete. Id. at 9. After additional back and forth, Travelers provided Gebretsadike with a complete copy of the policy. Id. at 9-10. Nearly a year later, he filed this action seeking to recover for Travelers' alleged breach of contract and tortious conduct.

II. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) must be granted if the allegations in the complaint do not " contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Facial plausibility entails " factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. While the court " must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true," legal conclusions " couched as a factual allegation" do not warrant the same deference. Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). " A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251, (1976)) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The court cannot consider matters outside the pleadings in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, but it may consider " documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint, or documents upon which the plaintiff's complaint necessarily relies even if the document is produced not by the plaintiff in the complaint but by the defendant in a motion to dismiss." Ward v D.C. Dep't of Youth Rehab. Servs., 768 F.Supp.2d 117, 119 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Hinton v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 624 F.Supp.2d 45, 46 (D.D.C.2009)) (internal citation omitted). Because Gebretsadike's complaint refers to his insurance policy, the Court may consider the associated policy documents that Travelers has attached to the motion to dismiss without converting the motion into one for summary judgment.

III. Analysis

A. Motion to Remand

Gebretsadike moves to remand this case to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia because, he contends, he and Travelers are both citizens of the District of Columbia and the amount in controversy does not exceed $75,000. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and may only hear cases that fall within the strictures of the Constitution and acts of Congress. Hunter v. District of Columbia, 384 F.Supp.2d 257, 259 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U.S. 507, 511, 93 S.Ct. 2222, 37 L.Ed.2d 109 (1973)). When a court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, it must remand the case to the proper forum. Republic of Venezuela v. Philip Morris, Inc., 287 F.3d 192, 196, 351 U.S.App.D.C. 108 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c)). A defendant may remove a civil action to a federal district court if the district court has original jurisdiction over the claim at issue. 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Federal district courts have original jurisdiction over civil cases where more than $75,000 is at issue and the parties are citizens of different states or, in a case involving a noncitizen lawful resident of the United States, between a citizen of one state and a lawful resident domiciled in a different state. 28 U.S.C. § 1332. That said, removal is not permitted if original jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship between the parties and the defendant is a citizen of the state in which the action is initially brought. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2). While Gebretsadike appears to have initially served the incorrect party, Mot. to Remand ¶ 4, Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Company--the entity that issued his insurance policy--is a Connecticut corporation with its principal place of business in Connecticut, Notice of Removal ¶ 5. As a result, the two parties to the suit hail from different states and the defendant is not a citizen of the state--the District of Columbia--in which the action was initially brought.

With respect to the amount in controversy, Gebretsadike's complaint specifically lists $38,065.34 in damages resulting from Travelers' alleged breach of his insurance policy, but also requests an unspecified amount of other damages for various torts and violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act. Compl. at 17-19. When a plaintiff seeks an unspecified amount of damages, a removing defendant must " 'establish the amount in controversy by a preponderance of the evidence.'" Parker-Williams v. Charles Tini & Assocs., Inc., 53 F.Supp.3d 149, 2014 WL 3278585, at *2 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Mostofi v. Network Capital Funding Corp., 798 F.Supp.2d 52, 55 (D.D.C. 2011)). Yet this does not necessarily require " an item-by-item accounting of the claims" and courts may " exercise some degree of common sense in order to independently determine whether the amount in controversy has been met." Id. (citing Busby v. Capital One, N.A., 932 F.Supp.2d 114, 132 (D.D.C. 2013). Here, Travelers correctly notes that the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act permits a plaintiff to recover treble and punitive damages, D.C. Code § 28-3905(k)(2), meaning Gebretsadike could recover more than $114,000 based on that claim alone. Gebretsadike also seeks additional compensatory damages for his pain, suffering, and mental anguish, which would likely exceed $75,000 as well. See id. (holding " compensatory damages alone may be sufficient to cross the $75,000 threshold" where plaintiff sought damages for pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life). Because the unspecified amount of damages Gebretsadike requests very likely exceeds $75,000, and because Travelers is a citizen of a different state from Gebretsadike and from the forum in which the action was initially filed, the Court will deny his motion to remand.

B. Tort Claims and Punitive Damages

Gebretsadike alleges several tort claims stemming from Travelers' denial of his requests for coverage, including breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing; breach of fiduciary duty; tortious interference with a contract; and intentional infliction of emotional distress. District of Columbia law, however, does not permit tort claims that arise from a contractual relationship, as " the tort must exist in its own right independent of the contract, and any duty upon which the tort is based must flow from considerations other than the contractual relationship." Choharis v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co.,961 A.2d 1080, 1089 (D.C. 2008). More specifically, District of Columbia law does not " recognize a tort of bad faith by insurance companies in the handling of policy claims," id. at 1087; consider the relationship between insurer and insured a fiduciary relationship, Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. CTIA-The Wirelss Ass'n.,480 F.Supp.2d 7, 15 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Harris Trust & Sav. Bank,510 U.S. 86, 119, 114 S.Ct. 517, 126 L.Ed.2d 524 (1993)); or allow for punitive damages based on a breach of contract, id. (quoting Sere v. Group Hospitalization, Inc.,443 A.2d 33, 37 (D.C. 1982)). Exceptions exist for willful torts such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, but a plaintiff must allege " 'extreme and outrageous' conduct on the part of the ...

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