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Nowlin v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 28, 2015

DWAYNE ANTHONY NOWLIN, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge

Dwayne Anthony Nowlin was incarcerated by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (“DOC”) from August 2013 to March 2014. In this lawsuit, Nowlin alleges that while transferring him between facilities, several corrections officers attacked him without cause, beating and kicking him and spraying his eyes with pepper spray. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 8–11. He claims he was then placed in administrative segregation, and that DOC subsequently refused to investigate the incident or provide him with adequate medical attention. Id. ¶¶ 11–18. Nowlin brings claims for assault and battery and for deprivation of civil rights against two corrections officers: Sergeant Harrison Ekwonna and Officer Chukwuemeka Ekwonna, a father and son. Nowlin also filed claims for common law excessive force and for various forms of negligence against the Ekwonnas and the District of Columbia.

All defendants move to dismiss the negligence claims, [1] and the District also moves to dismiss the excessive force claim. Because, as Nowlin acknowledges, see Pl.’s Opp’n Partial Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 5, at 4, excessive force is not recognized as an independent cause of action in the District of Columbia, the Court will grant the District’s motion as to Nowlin’s excessive force claim. Further, because Nowlin does not plead distinct and plausible facts supporting a theory of negligence separate and apart from his assault and battery claim, the Court will grant Defendants’ motions as to negligence on the part of the officers. Finally, because the District cannot be held liable in tort for failing to investigate an inmate’s grievance in accordance with its own procedures, the Court will also grant the District’s motion as to Nowlin’s negligent investigation claim.

I. Background

According to Nowlin’s account of the facts, which the Court accepts as true for purposes of assessing a motion to dismiss, Nowlin was formerly an inmate at the District of Columbia jail. On August 26, 2013, Sergeant Harrison Ekwonna was transferring Nowlin between correctional facilities when they had a verbal altercation that led Ekwonna to call a “Code Blue, ” requesting emergency assistance from other corrections officers. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 8–9. Officer Chukwuemeka Ekwonna-Harrison Ekwonna’s son-and approximately five unknown officers approached Nowlin, sprayed him with an inflammatory substance, and “gratuitously and viscously [sic] beat him”-despite his voluntary submission. Id. ¶¶ 10–11. The officers then placed him in administrative segregation. Id. Nowlin suffered severe pain in his lower back, hip, and right leg following the incident. Id. ¶ 12.

Nowlin alleges that his injuries were not properly diagnosed until almost two months after the altercation and that he did not begin receiving physical therapy until three weeks after the diagnosis. Id. ¶ 17. According to Nowlin, the delayed treatment exacerbated his injury. Id. ¶ 18. At some point during his incarceration, Nowlin filed three grievances claiming that he was subjected to excessive force and given inadequate medical attention, but these grievances were ultimately denied. Id. ¶ 13. Nowlin claims the District of Columbia “failed to . . . secure video evidence” in connection with these grievances, which would have “exonerated” him and “caused him to be released from segregation” at an earlier time. Id. ¶ 19.

Nowlin initially filed this lawsuit in March 2015 in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He subsequently amended his complaint, and the District of Columbia removed the case to this Court in April 2015. Nowlin seeks to recover both from the officers and the District for common law excessive force and for several forms of negligence, and also seeks to recover from the officers for assault and battery and for deprivation of his civil rights. All defendants now move to dismiss the negligence claims, with the exception of the claim for negligent supervision. The District also moves to dismiss the excessive force claim.

II. Standard of Review

Defendants’ motions to dismiss should be granted if Nowlin’s complaint does 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 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This standard “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ’ but it demands more than” bare accusations against the defendant. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In deciding the District’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court “must accept as true all of the facts in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93–94 (2007) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555–56). Any ambiguities must be viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, giving him the benefit of every reasonable inference drawn from the facts and allegations in the complaint. In re Interbank Funding Corp. Sec. Litig., 668 F.Supp.2d 44, 47 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). Although the Court must accept all well-pled facts as true, legal allegations devoid of factual support are not entitled to this assumption. See Kowal v. MCI Commc’ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

III. Analysis

A. Excessive Force Claim Against the District of Columbia

Nowlin seeks to hold the District of Columbia vicariously liable for the officers’ alleged use of excessive force under a theory of respondeat superior. Confusingly, he acknowledges that “the District of Columbia does not recognize excessive force as a standalone common law claim, ” Pl.’s Opp’n Partial Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 5, at 5, yet nonetheless insists that he is bringing “a common law claim of excessive force which does not require [him] to plead facts in support of municipal liability, ” id. at 4. He contends further that the allegations in his excessive force claim overlap with his assault and battery claim as well as his negligence claim. Id. at 5.

Plaintiffs typically bring claims alleging excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. See, e.g., Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). Under Section 1983, a municipality cannot be held liable on a respondeat superior theory. Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978); Singletary v. District of Columbia, 766 F.3d 66, 72 (D.C. Cir. 2014). Accordingly, if Nowlin seeks to hold the District of Columbia liable for violation of his constitutional rights, he cannot do so on the basis of respondeat superior. Nowlin insists, however, that “[t]here are no constitutional claims being brought against the District of Columbia, ” Pl.’s Opp’n Partial Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 5, at 5, reiterating that he is simply bringing a “common law claim of excessive force, ” id. ...


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