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Spencer v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 4, 2016

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.


CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge

An early-hours brawl with a fellow nightclub patron left Brittany Spencer’s shirt torn and her breasts exposed to peering onlookers. After the police arrived and detained both combatants, Spencer alleges, they required her to remain topless at the scene and later at the station, in full view of numerous officers and her cellmate. Believing her modesty offended, she filed suit against the arresting officers for effecting an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, and against their employer, the District of Columbia, for committing the common-law tort of intrusion upon seclusion. The Defendants now move to dismiss Spencer’s Amended Complaint. Finding that Spencer has properly pled both claims, the Court will deny the motion.

I. Background

The following facts are drawn from Spencer’s Amended Complaint and a Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) report of the incident provided by the Defendants, of which the Court takes judicial notice. See In re Sci. Applications Int’l Corp. Backup Tape Data Theft Litig., 45 F.Supp.3d 14, 20 n.1 (D.D.C. 2014) (on a motion to dismiss, noting that a “police report is a public record subject to judicial notice”); Kaempe v. Myers, 367 F.3d 958, 965 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (“[P]ublic records [are] subject to judicial notice on a motion to dismiss.”). The Court, as it must, accepts the Complaint’s factual allegations as true for purposes of this motion. See Kaempe, 367 F.3d at 963.

At approximately 3:00 a.m. on May 11, 2014, MPD officers responded to an altercation in the lobby of a downtown nightclub. There they encountered Spencer and another female patron in a fist fight. After struggling to separate them, the officers arrested both pugilists on simple assault charges. Spencer claims that the other woman instigated the assault and ripped her shirt in the process, exposing her breasts. Callous to her condition, Spencer alleges, the officers handcuffed her and “required her to remain standing outside, bare-breasted, for approximately ten minutes, in view of [the] large crowd” forming on the sidewalk. Am. Compl. ¶ 10. Spencer implored the officers to cover her breasts, but they refused.

Officers eventually put Spencer in a police cruiser, where, through the window, her breasts remained visible to the officers and the crowd on the sidewalk. A friend of Spencer’s on the scene repeatedly asked the officers to cover Spencer’s breasts. One responded that a female officer would do so, but after several minutes passed, the friend asked if she could provide Spencer a jacket. The officers refused. Some twenty or thirty minutes later, just before the cruiser departed for the station, a female officer adjusted Spencer’s shirt to provide at least some degree of coverage. When this makeshift adjustment came undone, the female officer seated next to Spencer in the cruiser did nothing to fix it.

Upon arriving at the police station, officers escorted Spencer to a cell, where she was held for “several hours with no access to water, nothing to cover her breasts, and no shoes.” Id. ¶ 28. She remained exposed to her cellmate as well as other officers at the station. Id. After several hours and repeated requests from Spencer’s friend, the officers allowed Spencer to put on a jacket. Id. ¶ 31.

Spencer filed a Complaint against the District of Columbia and unnamed John and Jane Doe Officers on September 9, 2014. After a motion to dismiss by Defendants, she filed an Amended Complaint on May 25, 2015, alleging that the District of Columbia is liable for the common-law tort of intrusion upon seclusion (Count I), and that the officers are individually liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for subjecting her to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count II). Defendants filed a second motion to dismiss on June 22, 2015. The Court heard oral argument on the motion on January 15, 2016.

II. Standard of Review

On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim, a court must assess whether the complaint alleges sufficient facts that, accepted as true, state an entitlement to relief that is “plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when it “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent’ with a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). A complaint’s factual allegations must be construed “in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hammel v. Marsh USA Inc., 79 F.Supp.3d 234, 238 (D.D.C. 2015). Yet “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Harris v. Dist. of Columbia Water & Sewer Auth., 791 F.3d 65, 68 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678) (internal quotation marks omitted). A complaint that presents merely “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

III. Analysis

A. Section 1983 Claim

1. Fourth Amendment Violation

Title 42, section 1983 of the U.S. Code authorizes lawsuits to redress violations of constitutional or statutory rights by persons acting under color of law. Spencer alleges that, by forcing her to remain exposed after her arrest, MPD officers violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” and thus are liable under § 1983. Fourth Amendment challenges to police conduct during and immediately preceding arrests brought under § 1983 often involve allegations of excessive force. Cf. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 399 (1989) (Blackmun, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) (“[T]he Fourth Amendment is the primary tool for analyzing claims of excessive force in the prearrest context.”). As Spencer observes, it is “somewhat awkward to conceptualize such an act or failure to act as ‘excessive force’ under the Fourth Amendment.” Pl.’s Opp’n Mot. Dismiss 4 (quoting Estate of Phillips v. City of Milwaukee, 123 F.3d 586, 595 (7th Cir. 1997)) (internal quotation ...

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