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Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

September 10, 2015

ERIK SEARCH, Plaintiff,
UBER TECHNOLOGIES, INC. et al., Defendants

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          For ERIK SEARCH, Plaintiff: Paul J. Cornoni, LEAD ATTORNEY, REGAN ZAMBRI & LONG, PLLC, Washington, DC.

         For UBER TECHNOLOGIES, INC., Defendant: Alison N. Davis, LITTLER MENDELSON, P.C., Washington, DC.

         YOHANNES DERESSE, also known as YAHANNES GETAHUN, Defendant, Pro se, Alexandria, VA.

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         JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

         For generations, parents have admonished their children not to get into cars with strangers. See, e.g., Forrest Gump (Paramount Pictures 1994) (" Mama said not to be taking rides from strangers." ). But in today's " sharing economy," that warning is an anachronism: every day, millions of Americans summon unknown drivers with the press of a button. At the same time, the danger of taking a ride from a stranger has not entirely disappeared. As with other growing pains of twenty-first-century economics, courts must now determine what is to be done about the risk of that old-fashioned danger in a market shaped by new players and new technologies.

         Plaintiff Erik Search filed this lawsuit against Uber Technologies, Inc., claiming that it is liable for an alleged knife attack by one of its drivers, Yohannes Deresse. Search has asserted, inter alia, claims of negligent hiring, training, and supervision; negligence under respondeat superior and apparent-agency theories; and violations of the D.C. Code. Whether Uber is liable for many of these depends on whether it was -- or presented itself as -- Deresse's employer.

         In now moving to dismiss, Uber argues that Deresse was instead merely an independent contractor. It maintains that it " is not a transportation company," but rather " a technology company that acts as a conduit between transportation providers and passengers." Mot. at 1. Search responds that Defendant now seeks to disavow, for its own legal expediency, the promotional language and promises that helped it amass a broad consumer base and multi-billion-dollar valuation -- in his view, Uber's is a classic corporate case of trying to have one's cake and eat it, too. Both sides' rhetoric notwithstanding, the Court concludes that it is premature to decide most of these issues at this time. This is because, in its Motion to Dismiss, Uber relies predominantly on factual information outside the four corners of Plaintiff's Complaint. For the reasons that follow, consequently, the Court will deny in large part, and grant in part, Uber's Motion.

         I. Background

         According to the Amended Complaint, which the Court must presume to be true at this stage, Defendant Uber " is a car service that provides drivers to customers on demand through a cell phone application, or 'app,' in cities around the world." Am. Compl., ¶ 6. In its app -- which is free to download and install on any smartphone -- the company markets itself to consumers as " your private driver in more than 50 countries." Id., ¶ ¶ 6, 10.

         Uber's business model operates as follows: it dictates the fares charged in each jurisdiction in which it operates, collects the appropriate payment from each passenger, and then passes on to its drivers 75-80% of the fares collected while keeping the remaining portion for itself. See

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id., ¶ 11. Notably, " Uber drivers do not collect any form of payment directly from consumers; rather, they receive payment for their work . . . via weekly direct deposit." Id., ¶ 12. Drivers are not permitted to set their own fares, accept cash payment from consumers, or retroactively adjust a fare up or down. See id., ¶ ¶ 13-14.

         Defendant " subjects its drivers," moreover, " to a host of specific requirements concerning the performance of their driving duties." Id., ¶ 15. Among other things, the company demands that its drivers " utilize an app on a phone provided by Uber" ; maintain their vehicles in " great" mechanical shape and " acceptably clean" condition; " adhere to Uber's rules regarding tipping," which include refusing tips once and accepting them only on the second offer; sustain an acceptable ride-request-acceptance rate; respond to ride requests within an acceptable timeframe; " display the Uber logo on their vehicles" ; and refrain from excessively calling passengers who have requested a ride. See id.

         On September 8, 2013, Plaintiff Erik Search and three of his friends required transportation from 3030 K Street, NW, in the District of Columbia. See id., ¶ 16. As he had on multiple past occasions, Search used the Uber app on his phone to request a pick-up at that location. See id., ¶ ¶ 16-17. On that evening, Uber driver Yohannes Deresse accepted Plaintiff's request and arrived shortly thereafter. See id.

         Immediately following the group's entry into the car, Deresse " began to act erratically." See id., ¶ 18. Uncomfortable with Deresse's behavior, Search and his companions exited the vehicle and began walking away. See id. , ¶ ¶ 18-19. According to Plaintiff, Deresse followed them out of the car and began to verbally harass them. See id., ¶ 19. In response, Search told the driver " to leave them alone," and that " they did not feel safe riding in an Uber car with him." See id., ¶ 20.

         At that point, the verbal dispute escalated into physical violence. As Search recounts, Deresse pulled out a knife and stabbed him at least six times in his chest and left arm. See id., ¶ ¶ 21-22. Plaintiff sustained severe injuries during the course of the brutal attack, requiring him to undergo " CT scans, x-rays, surgical exploration of the chest wound, diagnostic laparoscopy, cauterization, and muscle reconstruction with sutures and staples." Id., ¶ 22. In addition, Plaintiff suffered " pain, mental anguish, humiliation, and indignity" as a result of the assault. Id., ¶ 23.

         Naming Deresse and Uber as Defendants - as well as another entity since dismissed, see ECF No. 15 (Stipulation of Dismissal) - Plaintiff filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, alleging a variety of state-law tort claims and one violation of the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act, codified at D.C. Code § 28-3905(k). Uber, in turn, removed the suit to federal court on diversity grounds and now moves to dismiss all causes of action lodged against it. (Deresse has not yet been served.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must dismiss a claim for relief when the complaint " fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must " treat the complaint's factual allegations as true and must grant plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113, 342 U.S. App.D.C. 268 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). A court need not accept as

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true, however, " a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193, 372 U.S. App.D.C. 335 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986)). Although " detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), " a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, [if] accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted). Though a plaintiff may survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion even if " recovery is very remote and unlikely," the facts alleged in the complaint " must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974)).

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) must rely solely on matters within the complaint, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), which includes statements adopted by reference as well as copies of written instruments joined as exhibits. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c). Where the Court must consider " matters outside the pleadings" to reach its conclusion, a motion to dismiss " must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); see also Yates v. District of Columbia, 324 F.3d 724, 725, 355 U.S. App.D.C. 344 (D.C. Cir. 2003). Such conversion is premature, however, if all parties have not yet had the " opportunity to present evidence in support of their respective positions." Kim v. United States, 632 F.3d 713, 719, 394 U.S. App.D.C. 149 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d)).

         III. Analysis

         In the instant Motion, Uber moves to dismiss five of the eight counts in the Amended Complaint. The Court analyzes each in turn, after first resolving a threshold procedural issue.

         A. Conversion to Motion for Summary Judgment

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) must rely solely on facts within the four corners of the Complaint, and the Court must adjudicate the Motion under the same constraint. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); see also Hawkins v. Boone, 786 F.Supp.2d 328, 332 (D.D.C. 2011). Here, however, Defendants have submitted materials outside the Complaint along with their Motion -- namely, the Declaration of Rachel Holt, see Mot., Exh. 1, and Uber's User Terms and Conditions (User Agreement). See id., Exh. B. As previously ...

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