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Thomas v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 16, 2016



          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge.

         Former District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") officer Michael Thomas, while off duty and in another jurisdiction, shot an unarmed civilian who he believed had tried to burgle his truck. Following an internal investigation and an administrative hearing, MPD terminated Thomas on the grounds that the shooting was unjustified and violated several MPD policies. Thomas, who is African-American, responded by suing the District of Columbia for race discrimination. He disputes the Department's factual findings regarding the incident and claims the MPD has disciplined non-African-American officers less severely for comparable infractions. The District now moves for summary judgment. Finding that Thomas has not offered any evidence to suggest that he was terminated because of his race, the Court will grant the District's motion and dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         A. The September 13. 2009 Incident

         The following facts are drawn from police reports of the incident that led to Thomas's termination and materials cited by the parties from subsequent MPD administrative proceedings. Thomas was off-duty in the early hours of September 13, 2009. Def's Mot. Summ. J. ("MSJ") Ex. B, 10. While he watching television in bed at a residence in Hyattsville, Maryland, Thomas heard his key fob sound an alarm, potentially indicating that someone was breaking into his truck. From the front window of the house, Thomas saw a stranger-later identified as Julio Lemus-standing next to the truck. Thomas grabbed his MPD-issued badge and gun and ran to the front porch. Id. According to Thomas, he twice identified himself as a police officer and asked Mr. Lemus to move on. When Lemus refused, Thomas walked to within approximately four feet of him. Lemus then asked, "That's how you are going son?" Id. Thomas responded, "Police, just leave, " and shifted his belt so Lemus could see his badge and gun. At that point Thomas claimed Lemus began to approach him and reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt. Purportedly fearing for his safety, Thomas drew his gun and shot Lemus twice. Lemus survived. There was no damage to Thomas's truck.

         Lemus provided investigators a somewhat different account. He testified that he had been walking home from his cousin's nearby home, where the two had been drinking heavily. Def's MSJ Ex. C, 6. Lemus explained that he stopped next to Thomas's truck and attempted to urinate, placing a bottle of beer on the truck in the process. Id. At this point, he heard something from behind and turned to see Officer Thomas "charging" at him. Id. at 6. He raised his hands, but Thomas continued to approach and pulled his gun. Lemus insisted that Thomas never identified himself as a police officer. Yet as he turned to run away, Thomas shot him in the side and leg. Lemus denied ever walking toward Thomas or provoking him in any way. Lemus was unarmed.

         B. MPD's Investigation of the Incident

         MPD conducted an internal investigation of the incident, which involved several levels of administrative review. First, the Force Investigations Branch of MPD's Internal Affairs Bureau conducted a field investigation. Detective James King was "assigned as the lead investigator and investigated the case under the direction of Lieutenant Guy Middleton of the Force Investigations Branch." See Defi's MS J Ex. B, 11. Detective King, in his initial report, found the shooting to be justified. Id. at 23-24. King wrote that "Officer Thomas reacted to what he perceived as a threat that could result in death or serious bodily injury and was in fear of his life when he discharged his [firearm]." Id. at 23. Lieutenant Middleton disagreed. Middleton cited numerous flaws in King's report, including its failure to consider that Thomas had no law-enforcement authority in Maryland. Id. He added, moreover, that the shooting occurred following a series of questionable decisions by Thomas, such as failing to notify local police before confronting a person suspected of a non-violent property crime and not having less-than-lethal weapons at hand. Id. at 5. The Commanding Officer of the Force Investigations Branch reviewed both reports, ultimately recommending to the Use of Force Review Board that Thomas's actions were "Not Justified, Not Within Department Policy." Id. at 3. The Board concurred and accordingly referred the case to MPD's Disciplinary Review Branch for violations of MPD General Orders pertaining to the use of deadly force. Defi's MS J Ex. B, 1.

         Within the Disciplinary Review Branch, an Adverse Action Panel ("Panel") reviewed the case. The Panel held a hearing at which Thomas, Lemus, and other witnesses testified, including Detective King. Notably, King testified against Thomas and appeared to retract his earlier assessment that Thomas's use of force was justified. According to the Panel findings, "Detective King . . . testified that he did not have all the information, in regard to this shooting that was available at the time he completed his report." Defi's MSJ Ex. C, 5. King further claimed that "there were a lot of facts that he had not had an opportunity to review or to include in his report[, ] and that the report was probably not complete to a percentage." Id. Finally, King acknowledged that it is MPD policy for off-duty officers to "proceed cautiously, and . . . that it is prudent for off-duty MPD personnel to contact on-duty police officers from the jurisdiction that the incident occurred in prior to taking police action." Id. at 6. The Panel ultimately found against Thomas on two charges: 1) "commission of any act which would constitute a crime, " and 2) use of deadly force without necessary reason and not "to defend against an imminent attack posing the risk of serious bodily injury or death." Id. The Panel recommended termination. Thomas appealed to the Chief of Police, who adopted the Panel's findings and terminated Thomas. Id.

         C. Procedural Background

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies at MPD, Thomas filed suit in this Court against the District of Columbia on July 16, 2013. He amended his complaint on September 26, 2013 and asserted four counts: Count One alleged employment discrimination on the basis of race under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.. and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1402.11. See First Amend. Compl. 1-2. Count Two asserted a hostile work environment, also under Title VII and the DCHRA. Id. Count Three sought recovery for constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. And Count Four sought equitable relief, including an order for the District of Columbia to institute an antidiscrimination policy and for MPD supervisors to undergo antidiscrimination training. Li at 13-14.

         Thomas consented to the dismissal of Counts Two and Four on October 1, 2014. Thomas subsequently filed a Second Amended Complaint on October 14, 2014. See Second Amend. Compl. The District of Columbia then filed a motion to dismiss Thomas's § 1983 claim, arguing that a municipality cannot be liable under § 1983 absent "an official custom, practice, or policy that caused the alleged constitutional violation." See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss Second Amend. Compl. 4-5. The Court granted this motion on December 15, 2014, and the case proceeded to discovery. The Court now considers the District of Columbia's motion for summary judgment on the remaining discrimination claim.

         II. Legal Standard

         The Court shall grant summary judgment if "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). A dispute is "genuine" only when a reasonable fact-finder could find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" only if it is capable of affecting the outcome of litigation. Id. Non-material ...

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