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Delorenzo v. HP Enterprise Services, LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 31, 2016

PATRICIA DELORENZO, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. JAMES B. FRASIER et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. JOHN EDWARD PROCTOR, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. PRISCILLA A. HALMON-DANIELS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE EXPERTS, INC., et al., Defendants. MICHELLE KOHLER, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. TRACEY RIDGELL, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. ERIN ZAGAMI, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. JANE MAE MCCULLOUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants. JENNIFER JACOBS, Plaintiff,
v.
HP ENTERPRISE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION ON MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE, CERTIFICATION FOR INTERLOCUTORY APPEAL

          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER United States District Judge

         These nine cases all arise from the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on September 16, 2013. The crimes were committed by Aaron Alexis, who was a computer technician and a civilian employee of Defendant The Experts, Inc. The Experts was a subcontractor to Defendant HP Enterprise Services, LLC (“HPES”), which held the prime contract with the Navy for information technology services. Twelve people died and four were injured by Mr. Alexis on September 16th. Plaintiffs[1] are the personal representatives of the estates (or surviving family members or heirs) of seven decedents, a survivor seriously injured by Mr. Alexis, and a survivor who was a witness to the carnage. All Defendants filed motions to dismiss and, on September 15, 2016, the Court issued an Opinion and Order in each case, Op. [Dkt. 132]; Order [Dkt. 133][2], granting in part and denying in part those motions. The Court dismissed all claims “with the exception of: (1) Plaintiffs' claims against HPES and The Experts for negligent retention and supervision of Mr. Alexis; and (2) the claims of Plaintiffs Kohler, Ridgell, Zagami, and Jacobs against HPES for negligent retention and supervision of The Experts.” Op. at 81.

         HPES moves the Court to reconsider its finding that Plaintiffs adequately alleged these two claims. HPES Mot. for Recons. [Dkt. 137]. In the alternative, HPES seeks certification for immediate interlocutory review of the Court's holding that the “heightened foreseeability” standard applied by District of Columbia courts for evaluating liability for an intervening crime by a third person does not apply to allegations of negligent retention and supervision resulting in a crime by a third person. The Experts joins in the request for certification of the legal standard for immediate review by the D.C. Circuit. All Plaintiffs oppose both aspects of the motion.

         I. RECONSIDERATION

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) governs a motion for reconsideration. Rule 54(b) provides that “any order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties . . . may be revised at any time before the entry of judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities.” Relief under Rule 54(b) is available “as justice requires.” DL v. Dist. of Columbia, 274 F.R.D. 320, 324 (D.D.C. 2011). Courts examine the relevant circumstances to determine “what justice requires.” Cobell v. Norton, 355 F.Supp.2d 531, 539 (D.D.C. 2005). Relevant circumstances include whether the court has “‘patently misunderstood a party, has made a decision outside the adversarial issues presented to the Court by the parties, has made an error not of reasoning, but of apprehension, or where a controlling or significant change in the law or facts has occurred since the submission of the issue to the Court.'” Ficken v. Golden, 696 F.Supp.2d 21, 35 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting Cobell v. Norton, 224 F.R.D. 266, 272 (D.D.C. 2004)). A court's discretion under Rule 54(b) is “subject to the caveat that, where litigants have once battled for the court's decision, they should neither be required, nor without good reason permitted, to battle for it again.” Singh v. The George Washington Univ., 383 F.Supp.2d 99, 101 (D.D.C. 2005).

         HPES argues, in part, that “the Opinion's conclusion that Plaintiffs stated a claim for negligent retention and supervision of Mr. Alexis relies on the mistaken assertion that HPES did not contest Plaintiffs' allegations with respect to the events of August 2013.” HPES Mot. for Recons. ¶ 4. HPES takes issue with footnote 27 in the Opinion, which stated, “Neither HPES nor The Experts contest the sufficiency of the allegations with respect to what they knew or should have known about the series of events in August 2013.” Op. at 46 n.27. HPES notes that it itemized the Plaintiffs' allegations about what HPES knew about Mr. Alexis prior to the shooting on pages 6 and 7 of its Motion to Dismiss, see Dkt. 107, and that none of those listed allegations includes the four allegations identified by the Court “that combined with the symptoms of mental illness exhibited by Mr. Alexis during August 4-7, 2013, barely push Plaintiffs' claims of negligent retention and supervision over the plausibility threshold of Twombly.” Op. at 45.

         The Court will grant reconsideration in part and strike footnote 27 from the Opinion. However, HPES's argument does not support reconsideration of the Court's underlying legal assessment of the motion to dismiss. Therefore, the Court will not modify the Opinion's conclusion that Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled claims for potential HPES liability under DC tort law, both for negligent retention and supervision of Mr. Alexis, as alleged in all Complaints, and of The Experts, as alleged in the Complaints of Plaintiffs Kohler, Ridgell, Zagami, and Jacobs.[3]

         HPES relied on Bailey v. District of Columbia and similar cases to argue that under D.C. law, “[w]here an injury is caused by the intervening criminal act of a third party, this court has repeatedly held that liability depends upon a more heightened showing of foreseeability than would be required if the act was merely negligent.” 668 A.2d 817, 819 (D.C. 1995); HPES Mot. to Dismiss 10-14. The Court agreed with this HPES argument and on that basis dismissed all of Plaintiffs' claims except those of negligent retention and supervision. As to the latter claims, for reasons explained in the Opinion, the Court applied the District of Columbia's lower standard of foreseeability for negligent retention and supervision, which requires a plaintiff to “‘show that an employer knew or should have known its employee behaved in a dangerous or otherwise incompetent manner, and that the employer, armed with that actual or constructive knowledge, failed to adequately supervise the employee.'” Op. at 26 (quoting Giles v. Shell Oil Corp., 487 A.2d 610, 613 (D.C. 1985)).

         HPES insists that the Opinion rests “entirely” on the four allegations identified in the Opinion when it found that Plaintiffs sufficiently met the applicable pleading standard for negligent retention or supervision. See HPES Mem. in Support of Mot. for Recons. [Dkt. 137] at 3. The Opinion did not state that the enumerated list constituted the “entire” universe of relevant allegations; it is critical in this regard to appreciate that the pertinent time period of Defendants' knowledge is not merely August 4 to 7 in 2013, when Mr. Alexis experienced an episode of mental instability. Rather, Plaintiffs complain that Mr. Alexis entered the Navy Yard on September 16, 2013, under the auspices of his employment with The Experts and HPES.[4] The stated allegations do not address this entire period. According to HPES's own motion to dismiss, the Plaintiffs have alleged without contradiction that (1) HPES was in communication with The Experts about Mr. Alexis's health issues and knew that he “would be removed from the Newport project team”; (2) the HPES second shift supervisor was present generally throughout the incident in Newport, spoke directly to Mr. Alexis about his fears and delusions in Norfolk and Newport, and spoke with both HPES and The Experts supervisory or managerial staff about him; and (3) Mr. Alexis returned to work the following week without any medical attention or counseling and worked at four different project sites between August 12 and September 6, 2013. HPES Mot. to Dismiss 6-8. When strange incidents could give rise to an inference that an employee behaved in a “dangerous or otherwise incompetent manner, ” see Giles, 487 A.2d at 613; and supervisors had specific knowledge of those incidents, and there were discussions between supervisors and managers about those incidents, it cannot be determined on a motion to dismiss whether HPES knew or should have known all the facts developed by the Experts. HPES has given the Court no reason to disturb its original ruling in this regard.

         The contacts between the prime contractor and its subcontractor in the relevant and expanded time frame are not clear. There has been no discovery on such contacts, if any, between August 7 and September 15, 2013 concerning Mr. Alexis or on The Experts' internal analyses or on the Defendants' working arrangements. Because the Court has determined that “heightened foreseeability” is not the standard to be applied to Plaintiffs' allegations of negligent retention and supervision, and despite its cautions that an incident of paranoia and mental delusions cannot, alone, predict future violent conduct, it is necessary to develop a complete record on which summary judgment might be decided and/or to prepare for trial.

         II. INTERLOCUTORY APPEAL

         In the alternative, HPES and The Experts ask the Court to certify the Orders for interlocutory review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). A district court has discretion to certify a non-final order for interlocutory review under § 1292(b), which grants federal courts discretion to certify a non-final order for interlocutory review when the Court determines that “such order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.” 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). A controlling question of law “is one that would require reversal if decided incorrectly or that could materially affect the course of litigation with resulting savings of the court's or the parties' resources.” Judicial Watch Inc. v. Nat'l Energy Policy Dev. Grp., 233 F.Supp.2d 16, 19 (D.D.C. 2002).

         HPES and The Experts move for certification as to “whether D.C.'s heightened foreseeability standard applies to Plaintiffs' only remaining claims for negligent retention and supervision.” HPES Mot. for Recons. ¶ 5. Further, HPES suggests that the Court and parties usefully use the 60-90 days that HPES states that it normally takes the D.C. Circuit to decide whether to grant an interlocutory appeal by completing the anticipated motions practice (motion to dismiss/opposition/reply) for six new related cases that have been filed concerning the Navy Yard shooting since the Opinion issued.[5] Plaintiffs oppose and counsel for the Plaintiffs in the new cases committed themselves to prompt discovery with all other Plaintiffs so that the matters could proceed apace.

         HPES strenuously disagrees that D.C. law applies a lower standard of foreseeability for claims of negligent retention and supervision than for other claims involving intervening criminal acts, and this disagreement forms the basis for its request for interlocutory review. In voicing this disagreement, as is its right, HPES relies on its prior arguments about the state of D.C. law upon which the Court has already ruled. These arguments are unavailing: While it would be fair to characterize D.C.'s treatment of foreseeability in negligent retention and supervision cases as unusual and difficult to explain, the long line of D.C. Court of Appeals cases on the subject make clear that the rule is not novel, lacking precedent, an issue of first impression, or otherwise extraordinary. See Comm. on Oversight & Gov't Reform, United States House of Representatives v. Holder, Case No. 1:12-cv-1332, 2013 WL 11241275, at *2 ...


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