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Hawkins v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 27, 2018

MARK ANTHONY HAWKINS, et al., Plaintiffs,


          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH, United States District Judge

         This dispute arises from an interaction between the plaintiffs and a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) police officer, William O'Brien (O'Brien). Before the Court is WMATA's Motion to Dismiss and Officer O'Brien's Partial Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. Dkt. 14. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant WMATA's motion, and the Court will grant in part and deny in part O'Brien's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiffs, Mark Anthony Hawkins (Hawkins) and his four-year-old daughter Sparkle Hawkins (Sparkle), left the Verizon Center[1] at approximately 9:45 p.m. on February 17, 2017 after attending a performance of Disney on Ice. Am. Compl. ¶ 10, Dkt. 13. The sidewalk was filled with children and parents leaving the show. Id. ¶¶ 10-11, 30. Hawkins carried Sparkle on his hip as they left. Id. ¶ 12. Near the sidewalk where the pedestrians were leaving the stadium, O'Brien-an officer in WMATA's police force, the Metro Transit Police Department-drove a marked police vehicle. Id. ¶¶ 7, 10-14. As O'Brien drove by the crowd, the side view mirror of his vehicle allegedly hit Sparkle's arm, and she began to cry. Id. ¶¶ 13-15. According to the complaint, O'Brien stopped, got out of his vehicle, and drew his gun which he pointed at Hawkins. Id. ¶ 16. While walking from his car to the crowd, O'Brien shouted at everyone- Hawkins, Sparkle, and other pedestrians-and “seemed ready to use his weapon.” Id. ¶¶ 16-17. Other police officers shouted at O'Brien, urging him “to put away his weapon, ” id. ¶ 17, and at some point as the other officers approached the scene, O'Brien backed down, returned to his vehicle, and drove off, id. ¶ 18. After the incident, Hawkins and Sparkle allegedly “continue to suffer” from the “emotional and psychological trauma, ” id. ¶ 20, and Hawkins fears the police will not protect him and might even harm him in the future, id. ¶¶ 21-22.

         On August 29, 2017, Hawkins and Sparkle filed their complaint in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, alleging six counts against WMATA and O'Brien. Dkt. 1-2. The defendants removed the case to federal court, see Notice of Removal, Dkt. 1-5, and then moved to dismiss all claims against WMATA and to dismiss in part the claims against O'Brien pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, see Defs.' Original Mot., Dkt. 6. Subsequently, in their brief in opposition to the defendants' motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs sought to amend their complaint. Pls.' Original Opp'n at 4, Dkt. 9-1 (“Here Plaintiff seeks to amend his complaint and bring suit[] on his own behalf and also Sparkle Hawkins who is a minor. We seek opportunity to file an Amended Complaint to that regard.”). Even though the plaintiffs did not move to amend pursuant to Rule 15(a), the Court construed the plaintiffs' request as a motion for leave to amend, and granted the motion. Dkt. 12; see Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a). The plaintiffs filed their amended complaint on February 27, 2018. Dkt. 13. The defendants again moved to dismiss the claims against WMATA in their entirety and to partially dismiss the claims against O'Brien. Dkt. 14.


         Under Rule 12(b)(1), a party may move to dismiss an action or claim when the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A motion for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) “presents a threshold challenge to the court's jurisdiction.” Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 906 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and it is “presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). Thus, to survive a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the court has jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992).

         “When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the court must treat the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and afford the plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Jeong Seon Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d 95, 103 (D.D.C. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Those factual allegations, however, receive “closer scrutiny” than they would in the Rule 12(b)(6) context. Id. Also, unlike when evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider documents outside the pleadings to evaluate whether it has jurisdiction. See Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). If the court determines that it lacks jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the claim or action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), 12(h)(3).

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint “must 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)). Although “detailed factual allegations” are not required, a plaintiff must provide “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation, ” id., and must “raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. To state a facially plausible claim, the plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A complaint alleging “facts [that] are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability . . . ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         When evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court “must construe the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, who must be granted the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Hettinga v. United States, 677 F.3d 471, 476 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). Conclusory allegations, however, are not entitled to an assumption of truth, and even allegations pleaded with factual support need only be accepted insofar as “they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Along with the allegations within the four corners of the complaint, the court can consider “any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which [it] may take judicial notice.” EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Finally, a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal for failure to state a claim “is a resolution on the merits and is ordinarily prejudicial.” Buchwald v. Citibank, N.A., No. 13-cv-0210, 2013 WL 5218579, at *5 (D.D.C. Sept. 17, 2013) (quoting Okusami v. Psychiatric Inst. of Wash., Inc., 959 F.2d 1062, 1066 (D.C. Cir. 1992)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Caption of the Amended Complaint

         The defendants argue that the Court should dismiss Sparkle Hawkins's claims because the case caption is improper. In particular, the caption lists “Mark Anthony Hawkins” as the plaintiff without indicating that he is “next friend” of his daughter Sparkle. See Defs.' Mem. at 7, Dkt. 14. In response, the plaintiffs seek to amend the case caption with “next of friend, ”[2] but they do not move for leave to amend. See Pls.' Opp'n at 5, Dkt. 15-1.

         Rule 10(a) requires all parties to be listed in the caption of the complaint, Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a), but errors in captions are common and need not “be viewed as [] fatal defect[s], ” 5A Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1321 (3d ed. 2004 & Supp. 2017); see Williams v. Bradshaw, 459 F.3d 846, 849 (8th Cir. 2006) (“While a caption is not determinative as to who is party to a suit, we think that it is entitled to considerable weight when determining who the plaintiffs to a suit are since plaintiffs draft complaints.”); Marsh v. Butler Cty., 268 F.3d 1014, 1023 n.4 (11th Cir. 2001), abrogated on other grounds by Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) (“[T]he caption of the complaint is not part of the statement of the claim under Rule 8. The caption is something apart, being mandated by a different rule: Fed.R.Civ.P. 10. The caption is chiefly for a court's administrative convenience.”). In Nicol v. Baird, for example, the plaintiff incorrectly named an individual defendant as the executor of the estate against which the plaintiff sought relief. 234 F.2d 691 (D.C. Cir. 1956). The D.C. Circuit affirmed the dismissal of claims against the individual defendant whose “name nowhere appear[ed] in the body of the complaint, ” but allowed the case to proceed against a trust company that “had been served with a complaint which demanded relief against it in its capacity as executor.” Id. at 691.

         In a similar context, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure[3] as providing a jurisdictional bar to courts of appeals considering unnamed parties when the caption of the notice of appeal simply says “et al.” after one party's name. Torres v. Oakland Scavenger Co., 487 U.S. 312, 315-17 (1988) (rejecting such an appeal where the unnamed parties were “never named or otherwise designated” in the notice of appeal). But the Court recognized that “the rules of procedure should be liberally construed” and “‘mere technicalities' should not stand in the way of consideration of a case on its merits.” Id. at 316. When “a litigant files papers in a fashion that is technically at variance with the letter of a procedural rule, a court may nonetheless find that the litigant has complied with the rule if the litigant's action is the functional equivalent of what the rule requires.” Id. at 316-17; see also Milanovich v. Costa Crociere, S.p.A., 938 F.2d 297, 298 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (holding that a caption styled “Gregory Milonovich, et ux.” satisfied Appellate Rule 3(c) because “et ux.” was more specific than “et al.” and the notice of appeal referred to the husband and wife as “plaintiffs” in the plural).

         The technical deficiency at issue in this case does not warrant dismissal[4] of Sparkle's claims because the defendants had more than adequate notice that Hawkins is representing his daughter. The original complaint listed Sparkle in the caption, though it improperly indicated that Sparkle was suing in her own capacity. Compl. at 1, Dkt. 1-2. The amended complaint lists both Hawkins and Sparkle and notes that Hawkins is acting in a representative capacity. See Am. Compl. ¶ 5. Specifically, the body of the amended complaint says that Hawkins is “representing his minor daughter, Sparkle Hawkins.” Id. For these reasons, the plaintiffs have satisfied the “functional equivalent” of Rule 10(a) and provided adequate notice to the defendants of Sparkle's claims. Cf. Torres, 487 U.S. at 317.[5]

         Additionally, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure evince a “clear preference to resolve disputes on their merits.” Cohen v. Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of Dist. of Columbia, 819 F.3d 476, 482-83 (D.C. Cir. 2016). In the interest of a “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of this case, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 1, the Court will look to the body of the amended complaint in determining the parties to this case: here, Mark Anthony Hawkins in his own capacity and as next friend of his daughter, Sparkle. Therefore, the Court will not dismiss Sparkle's claims based on an error in the caption.

         B. Sovereign Immunity

         Hawkins's and Sparkle's tort claims against WMATA, however, will be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A state is immune from federal suits brought by the state's own citizens or the citizens of another state unless the state waives its sovereign immunity or Congress validly abrogates that immunity. See Jones v. WMATA, 205 F.3d 428, 431-32 (D.C. Cir. 2000). WMATA originates in a Compact signed by Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, and it enjoys the sovereign immunity of those signatories. Id.

         The signatories to the WMATA Compact have only partially waived sovereign immunity for tort actions. The WMATA Compact states that WMATA “shall not be liable for any such torts occurring in the performance of a governmental function, ” but WMATA “shall be liable for its contracts and for its torts and those of its Directors, officers, employees and agent[s] committed in the conduct of any propriety function.”[6] D.C. Code § 9-1107-01(80). The “threshold question, ” therefore, “is whether WMATA's operation of the Transit Police Force constitutes a governmental or a proprietary function within the terms of the Compact.”[7] Morris v. WMATA, 781 F.2d 218, 220 (D.C. Cir. 1986). Governmental functions, as opposed to proprietary ones, are activities that “amount[] to ‘quintessential' governmental function[s], like law enforcement.” Beebe v. WMATA, 129 F.3d 1283, 1287 (D.C. Cir. 1997); accord Burkhart v. WMATA, 112 F.3d 1207, 1217 (D.C. Cir. 1997). “WMATA's police activities are an exercise of governmental function” for which WMATA has not waived sovereign immunity. Dant v. WMATA, 829 F.2d 69, 74 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Furthermore, even activities that are not “governmental functions” are protected by sovereign immunity if they involve decisions that are discretionary in nature. Burkhart, 112 F.3d at 1217. For example, “employment decisions are not quintessential governmental functions” because “private entities also hire and fire employees, ” but such employment activities are still protected by sovereign immunity when they are discretionary. Beebe, 129 F.3d at 1287. Relevant here, the “hiring, training, and supervision choices that WMATA faces are choices ‘susceptible to policy judgment'” and thus discretionary in nature. Burkhart, 112 F.3d at 1217; see also Id. (elaborating that WMATA has “broad power” and discretion in the supervision context to account for policy considerations, such as “budgetary considerations, employee privacy rights, and the need to ensure public safety, ” and in the training context, considerations such as “fiscal constraints, public safety, the complexity of the task involved, the degree of harm a wayward employee might cause, and the extent to which employees have deviated from accepted norms in the past”).

         The alleged torts occurred in the performance of WMATA Metro Transit Police activities. O'Brien was on duty, in his uniform, and driving a marked Metro Transit Police vehicle when the alleged offenses were committed. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7-9, 13-18. Because such police activities amount to a governmental function, WMATA cannot be held liable for the alleged torts that occurred during those activities, i.e., for all tort claims except Count IV. D.C. Code § 9-1107-01(80); Dant, 829 F.2d at 74. And WMATA's supervision and training of the police force, and specifically of O'Brien, are either police activities that amount to a governmental function or discretionary activities; either way, WMATA cannot be held liable via Count IV (negligent supervision). See Dant, 829 F.2d at 74; Burkhart, 112 F.3d at 1217. Therefore, the Court will dismiss the tort claims against WMATA.

         C. Common Law Torts

         1. ...

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