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Williams v. Ellerbe

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 29, 2018

MONTREAL ELLERBE, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Akiem Williams's motion to substitute the District of Columbia for the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (“DOC”) as a Defendant in this action. Dkt. 35. For the reasons that follow, the Court will DENY the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The amended complaint, Dkt. 34, alleges the following facts, which the Court must accept as true for purposes of the pending motion. See Wood v. Moss, 134 S.Ct. 2056, 2065-67 & n.5 (2014) (motion to dismiss); In re Interbank Funding Corp. Sec. Litig., 629 F.3d 213, 215 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (“‘[D]istrict court has discretion to deny a motion to amend on grounds of futility where the proposed pleading would not survive a motion to dismiss.'” (citation omitted)).

         In August 2014, Williams was incarcerated in the District of Columbia jail. Dkt. 34 at 3 (Am. Compl. ¶ 10). After not having the opportunity to shower for three days, Williams expressed “his desire to shower with soap” to Defendant Montreal Ellerbe, a corrections officer. See Id. at 4 (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 14-16). The next day, August 25, 2014, Williams asked Officer Ellerbe “whether he had remembered [to bring] the soap packs.” Id. at 5 (Am. Compl. ¶ 19). Officer Ellerbe replied, “I got you, I did not forget” and escorted Williams to the shower. Id. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 19-20). No. one else was present. Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 20). After Williams asked for the soap packs, Officer Ellerbe left and returned a few minutes later “with a broken and dirty piece of bar soap.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 22). Williams said that “he could not use that soap, ” id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 22), and “requested a ‘White Shirt,' which is slang for a [l]ieutenant, a higher-ranking corrections officer, ” so that he could “get a proper soap pack.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 22).

         Five to ten minutes later, Officer Ellerbe “arrived at the shower area” with two other corrections officers, Defendants Andre Taylor and Christian Pam. Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 23). By this time, Williams had been placed “inside a locked shower cage.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 24). Officer Ellerbe said, “What are you doing all that for?” and Williams told him to “shut up.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 25). According to Williams, Officer Ellerbe “then took out his keys, opened up the shower cage, [and] immediately attacked . . . Williams with clenched fists, using both hands, ” knocking Williams to the floor. Id. at 6 (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 26-27). Officer Taylor allegedly “came in and grabbed . . . Williams'[s] legs [and] kicked and stomped” his “body.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 28). During the beating, which “went on for several minutes, ” Officer Pam “shouted[, ] ‘That's enough! That's enough!' but made no other attempt to interfere.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 30-31). Officer Pam eventually “called a Code Blue to indicate . . . that reinforcements were needed.” Id. (Am. Compl. ¶ 32). Before the reinforcements arrived, Officer Ellerbe allegedly “emptied [an] entire can of mace” into Williams's face, temporarily blinding him and making it difficult for him to breathe. Id. at 6-7 (Am. Compl. ¶ 33).

         The next day, Williams “complained to the D.C. Department of Corrections about the [alleged] beating and macing . . . via the Inmate Grievance Process.” Id. at 7 (Am. Compl. ¶ 36). He submitted four additional complaints over the next six months. Id. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 37-40). He “received form-letter replies” to his complaints, but “no disciplinary action” was taken against Officers Ellerbe, Taylor, or Pam. Id. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 41-42).

         Williams, proceeding pro se, filed this action against the three officers and the DOC, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Dkt. 1. He claims that Officers Ellerbe and Taylor used excessive force and that Officer Pam and the DOC were deliberately indifferent to this use of force, all in violation of Williams's Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Dkt. 34 at 8-11 (Compl. ¶¶ 44-59). Williams seeks damages and attorney's fees. Id. at 11 (Am. Compl. Prayer).

         After several status conferences, the Court appointed Williams counsel from the Civil Pro Bono Panel and stayed the proceedings pending completion of the appointment process. Minute Order (June 27, 2017). At a subsequent scheduling conference, the Court granted Williams leave to file an amended complaint. Minute Order (Aug. 15, 2017). Williams submitted his amended complaint, Dkt. 34, and also moved to substitute the District of Columbia for the DOC as a Defendant because the DOC is non sui juris, Dkt. 35. The DOC opposes the motion because “such a substitution would be futile, as [the] [a]mended [c]omplaint fails to state a claim against the District [of Columbia].” Dkt. 37 at 1.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court “may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 21. In addition, the Court must “freely” grant leave to amend a pleading “when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Although “this mandate is to be heeded, ” Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962), that “does not mean that a motion for leave to amend must be granted as a matter of course, ” Hedgeye Risk Mgmt., LLC v. Heldman, 271 F.Supp.3d 181, 191 (D.D.C. 2017). Rather, the Court must consider whether “any apparent or declared reason-such as undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party . . . [or] futility of amendment”-counsels against allowing the proposed amendment. Foman, 371 U.S. at 182.

         For present purposes, only the futility factor is relevant. A court “has discretion to deny a motion to amend on grounds of futility where the proposed pleading would not survive a motion to dismiss.” In re Interbank Funding Corp., 629 F.3d at 215 (quoting Nat'l Wrestling Coaches Ass'n v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 366 F.3d 930, 945 (D.C. Cir. 2004)). The standard for deciding whether to deny leave due to futility is, as a result, “for practical purposes . . . identical to [the standard governing] a Rule 12(b)(6)” motion to dismiss. Id. at 215-16. “Because leave to amend should be liberally granted, the party opposing amendment bears the burden of coming forward with a colorable basis for denying leave to amend.” Jones v. Castro, 200 F.Supp.3d 183, 186 (D.D.C. 2016); see Abdullah v. Washington, 530 F.Supp.2d 112, 115 (D.D.C. 2008).

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a private cause of action against any “person” who, under color of state or District of Columbia law, deprives another individual of a federal constitutional or statutory right. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Municipalities like the District of Columbia may be held liable for their “agents' constitutional torts” but only if those agents “acted pursuant to municipal policy or custom.” Warren v. District of Columbia, 353 F.3d 36, 38 (D.C. Cir. 2004); see also Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691-94 (1978). To establish municipal liability under § 1983, Williams must demonstrate, first, that “there was an underlying constitutional [or statutory] violation” and, second, that “the municipality's policy or custom caused the constitutional violation.” Bell v. District of Columbia, 82 F.Supp.3d 151, 155 (D.D.C. 2015). To show that a D.C. “custom or policy caused the claimed violations of his constitutional rights, ” Williams must establish that the municipality (1) “explicitly adopted the policy that was the moving force of the constitutional violation;” (2) “knowingly ignore[d] a practice that was consistent enough to constitute custom;” or (3) failed to “respond[] to a need . . . in such a manner as to show deliberate indifference to the risk that not addressing the need will result in constitutional violations.” Warren, 353 F.3d at 39 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Only the last means of satisfying the causation requirement-deliberate indifference-is relevant here. Deliberate indifference “‘is determined by analyzing whether the municipality knew or should have known of the risk of constitutional violations,' but did not act.” Id. (quoting Baker v. District of Columbia, 326 F.3d 1302, 1306 (D.C. Cir. 2003)); see Jones v. Horne, 634 F.3d 588, 601 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (same). As the D.C. Circuit has explained, this standard “means that, faced with actual or constructive ...

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