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Goolsby v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 13, 2018

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA et al., Defendants.



         It is a sad reality of American life that a white citizen of Washington, D.C. would feel a need to report an African American teenager and his friends to the police for simply congregating in a public establishment. It is also lamentable (but thankfully not tragic in this instance) that the young man, having committed no crime, would feel the urge to run when the police arrived to investigate. Both actions are born of fear on either side of the country's racial divide. But while those fears may animate this case, they do not decide it.

         This case instead turns on a miscommunication between the 911 dispatchers who took the citizen's complaint and the patrol officers to whom it was relayed. That the officers received erroneous information about the nature of the complaint immunizes their use of force to detain the young man. And if the miscommunication was simply negligent, which seems likely, then the dispatchers, too, would be immune from suit. The present record, however, does not allow for a definitive determination of the dispatchers' mental state. The Court will therefore await further briefing after limited discovery before reaching that issue.

         I. Factual Background

         Before the Court are motions to dismiss, and on one issue an alternative motion for summary judgment, filed by the individual police officers and dispatchers who are named as defendants in this case. The District of Columbia joins both sets of motions. Because the defendants have predominantly moved for dismissal, the Court draws the following factual background from Plaintiff Jason Goolsby's Amended Complaint. See, e.g., Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

         On October 12, 2015, Goolsby and two other young African-American men walked into the vestibule of a Citibank in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. to use an ATM. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12, 14. A Caucasian family of three-a mother, father, and baby in a stroller- approached. Id. ¶¶ 15-16. Goolsby held the door open for the family to enter. Id. ¶ 17. He then overheard the mother say she had left something in the car, and the family left the bank without using the ATM. Id. ¶ 18.

         After leaving, the woman called 911. Id. ¶ 20. She reported to the dispatcher that she felt uneasy about Goolsby and the other two young men standing in the vestibule. Id. ¶¶ 20, 23, 51. The dispatcher then “relayed false and/or misleading information” to several District police officers, informing them that they were responding to “an imminent or already attempted robbery.” Id. ¶¶ 26-27, 29-34.

         When the responding officers arrived, they observed Goolsby and his friends walking down the street near the bank. Id. ¶¶ 37-38. They then “converged on the teenagers as if they were apprehending a dangerous felon.” Id. ¶ 40. One of the officers drove his SUV directly toward Goolsby “at a very high rate of speed” before exiting the car and yelling at Goolsby to get down on the ground or he would pepper spray him. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. Goolsby instead fled. Id. ¶ 42. Following a “short pursuit, ” the officers caught Goolsby and “violently slamm[ed] [him] to the ground, ” “twist[ed] [his] arm to a gut-wrenching degree while [he] screamed in pain, ” and handcuffed him. Id. ¶¶ 44-45, 47.

         While Goolsby was handcuffed, the officers contacted the woman who had placed the 911 call. Id. ¶ 48. The woman informed the officers that there had been no robbery, but that she had been alarmed by the young men's presence and thought the police should investigate. Id. ¶¶ 50-51. After speaking to the woman, the officers informed Goolsby that he had been detained because of the 911 call and released him. Id. ¶¶ 53-54. Goolsby alleges that he suffered unspecified “severe injuries to his face, left arm, neck, back, and thighs” at the hands of the officers. Id. ¶ 57.

         Goolsby subsequently brought suit against the District of Columbia as well as the individual officers and dispatchers involved in the incident. He alleged violations of his constitutional rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, premised on claims of illegal arrest or seizure, use of excessive force, and deprivation of his due process rights. Id. ¶¶ 78-95. He also raised parallel D.C. law claims for negligence, false imprisonment, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the individual defendants as well as against the District of Columbia under a respondeat superior theory of liability. Id. ¶¶ 60-77, 96-104.

         Goolsby's original complaint was served on the District alone, since he did not know the identities of the individual officers and dispatchers. The District subsequently moved to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment on the D.C. law claims; because the individual defendants had not yet been served, the District's motion did not address any of the section 1983 constitutional claims. On June 8, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the motion to dismiss. It then denied the motion without prejudice, directing the District to identify the individual defendants so as to allow Goolsby to effectuate service. See Minute Order (June 9, 2017). The Court deferred resolution of the D.C. common law claims pending the individual defendants' responses. See id.

         Goolsby has now filed an amended complaint and effectuated service on the individual defendants. The individual defendants and the District have again moved to dismiss the case, filing two separate motions: one by the police officer defendants (the “Officers”) and one by the dispatcher defendants (the “Dispatchers”), with the District joining both motions as to the respective respondeat superior claims against it. The Dispatchers have also moved for summary judgment on Goolsby's Fourth Amendment claim. The Court held a further hearing on May 22, 2018. It will now grant both motions in part, deny both motions in part, and again reserve ruling on Goolsby's D.C. law claims.

         II. Legal Standard

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         The District and all individual defendants have primarily moved to dismiss Goolsby's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). To withstand such a 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) (citation omitted). When resolving a 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must treat as true the factual allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor. See, e.g., Lee v. District of Columbia, 733 F.Supp.2d 156, 159 (D.D.C. 2010). However, the Court need not accept legal conclusions in the complaint. See, e.g., id.

         B. Motion for Summary Judgment

         The Dispatchers have additionally moved for summary judgement on Goolsby's section 1983 Fourth Amendment claims against them. A party will be granted summary judgment if it can show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P 56(a). A factual dispute is “material” if the resolution “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” and “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must “‘examine the facts in the record and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom in a light most favorable to' the nonmoving party.” Robinson v. Pezzat, 818 F.3d 1, 8 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (citation omitted).

         C. Qualified Immunity

         The individual defendants have also moved to dismiss the constitutional claims against them on the ground that their actions are protected by qualified immunity. Public officials will have immunity from suit under section 1983 unless their conduct violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam) (citation omitted). The unlawfulness of the official's actions must have been “clearly established at the time” of the official's conduct. District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (citation omitted). The burden is on the plaintiff “to show that the particular right in question-narrowly described to fit the factual pattern confronting the [official]-was clearly established.” Dukore v. District of Columbia, 799 F.3d 1137, 1145 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (citation omitted).

         To violate a clearly established right, “existing law must have placed the constitutionality of the officer's conduct ‘beyond debate.'” Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 589. Moreover, “the clearly established law must be ‘particularized' to the facts of the case.” White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (per curiam). The Supreme Court has cautioned that this specificity and particularity is “especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where . . . [i]t is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine . . . will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.” Mullenix, 136 S.Ct. at 308 (alteration in original); see also Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 590. While this does not require “‘a case directly on point, '” “‘a body of relevant case law' is usually necessary to ‘clearly establish the answer'” in the Fourth Amendment context. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 590 (citations omitted). Indeed, the Supreme Court has “stressed the need to ‘identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances . . . was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.'” Id. (citation omitted) (alteration in original); see also Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S.Ct. 1148, 1153 (2018) (per curiam). Cases establishing general principles of law “do not by themselves create clearly established law outside ‘an obvious case.'” White, 137 S.Ct. at 552 (citation omitted).

         In determining whether qualified immunity will protect the officials in any particular case, the Court applies a two-part test: (1) whether the officials “violated a federal statutory or constitutional right” and (2) whether “the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.'” Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 589 (citation omitted). The Court has the ...

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