United States District Court, District of Columbia
STEVEN H. HALL, Plaintiff,
KIRSTJEN M. NIELSEN, et al., Defendants.
E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Department of Homeland Security terminated Plaintiff Steven
Hall's employment following a variety of misconduct
allegations, prompting him to retain the legal services of
Defendant Rosemary Dettling. Unhappy with the result of the
subsequent proceedings, Plaintiff has filed a barrage of
suits over the last few years, mostly in a pro se
capacity, against Dettling and DHS. This is one such case.
Dettling alone now moves to dismiss, contending that the
doctrine of claim preclusion bars this action against her
because she previously prevailed in a substantially similar
suit in D.C. Superior Court. The Court agrees and will grant
not the Court's first foray into the facts underlying
Hall's termination and grievance with Dettling. See
Hall v. Dep't of Homeland Sec, 219 F.Supp.3d 112
(D.D.C. 2016), aff'd sub nom. Hall v.
Dettling, No. 17-7008, 2017 WL 2348158 (D.C. Cir. May
17, 2017). Because only a summary rehearsal of this saga is
necessary to tee up the legal issue in this case, the Court
directs readers curious about the full production to its past
in 2010, DHS employed Hall at the GS-12 grade level.
See ECF No. 12 (Am. Compl.) at 2. The Agency
reported several disciplinary issues with Plaintiff and
decided, in early 2013, to place him on administrative leave.
Id., Exh. N (Facts) at 2-3; ECF No. 28 (Pl. Opp.) at
7. This action was followed by an indefinite suspension,
which culminated in the termination of Hall's employment.
See Am. Compl. Facts ¶ 3. Plaintiff also
reports that, preceding his suspension, he had requested
relocation to a new facility because his work site - the St.
Elizabeth's building in Southeast D.C. - contained dust
that exacerbated his respiratory ailments. Id. at 1.
Believing his suspension and termination to have been the
result of retaliation and discrimination, Hall filed several
complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
and the Merit Systems Protection Board. Id. at 5. He
hired Dettling to represent him in these matters.
Id. She in turn sought the assistance of other
attorneys contracted with her firm, the Federal Employees
Legal Services Center (FELSC). Id. at 6.
by counsel, Hall eventually signed a settlement agreement
with the Agency. Suffice it to say, however, that the path to
this resolution was far from smooth. The record reveals that
Hall repeatedly wavered before ultimately agreeing to the
settlement, which did not reinstate his employment but did
provide for a financial award and attorney fees. Id.
at 6-7. In the midst of this process, Hall ended his
professional relationship with Dettling and her firm.
Id. at 7. Plaintiff makes no bones about his current
dissatisfaction with the deal he entered into. See,
e.g., Pl. Opp. at 13-15.
discontent with his termination, legal representation, and
eventual settlement spurred a flurry of lawsuits. By this
Court's count, he has filed eight cases in this
jurisdiction. See Nos. 16-846, 16-1471, 16-1619,
17-1469, 18-444, 18-461, 18-1283, 18-1548.
also brought his grievance across the street. On December 30,
2016, he filed suit pro se in D.C. Superior Court against
Dettling and FELSC, centrally alleging legal malpractice in
their representation in connection with his employment
dispute. See Sup. Ct. Dkt. 2016-CA- 9316-B. What
happened there plays a central role here. On February 1,
2017, Dettling moved to dismiss that matter, contending that
Hall's complaint failed to state a legally viable claim
against her. A little over two weeks later, an attorney
entered an appearance on behalf of Hall and filed a motion
for default judgment, which the court denied. Neither Hall
nor his attorney filed any opposition to Dettling's
motion to dismiss. On March 20, 2017, Superior Court Judge
Jennifer Di Toro granted her motion and dismissed the case.
See Sup. Ct. 03/20/2017 Dkt. Entry (Sup. Ct. Op.)
(attached to this Opinion as Appendix A). Although the
Superior Court noted the lack of any opposition, it
nevertheless addressed the motion on its merits, rather than
treating it as conceded. Id. at 1, 5. Two days after
the Superior Court ruled, Hall filed an opposition to
Dettling's motion. He later filed a motion to reconsider.
Judge Di Toro considered his motion but held fast to her
prior ruling. See Sup. Ct. 09/19/2017 Dkt. Entry.
Hall did not appeal.
now returns to this Court. The players and the protests look
familiar. On February 27, 2018, Hall filed his Complaint
against Dettling and DHS, signed by the same attorney who had
represented him in Superior Court. See ECF No. 1. In
May of this year, that attorney withdrew and Hall continued
pro se. See ECF No. 5. After several additional
filings, Hall submitted the operative Complaint on July 24,
2018. In this Amended Complaint, he again takes aim at
Dettling's representation. Although his precise
allegations are no beacon of clarity, the Court has done its
best to discern the causes of action that Hall seeks to
assert against Dettling. A generous reading yields claims for
legal malpractice, fraud or misrepresentation, breach of
contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
now moves to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that the
Superior Court decision bars Plaintiff's current suit
from proceeding against her.
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal
of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim
upon which relief can be granted.” In evaluating
Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, the Court “must
treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . .
and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences
that can be derived from the facts alleged.'”
Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111,
1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United
States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)); see also
Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249,
1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court need not accept as true,
however, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual
allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts
set forth in the Complaint. See Trudeau v. FTC, 456
F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v.
Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). Although
“detailed factual allegations” are not necessary
to withstand 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) (internal citation omitted). For a plaintiff to
survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged in the complaint
“must be enough to raise a right to relief above the
speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).
claim preclusion may be brought as “an affirmative
defense that is generally pleaded in a defendant's
answer, [it] is also properly brought in a pre-answer Rule
12(b)(6) motion when all relevant facts are shown by the
court's own records, of which the court takes
notice.” Hemphill v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 605
F.Supp.2d 183, 186 (D.D.C. 2009) (internal quotation marks
and citations omitted); see also Stanton v. D.C. Court of
Appeals, 127 F.3d 72, 76-77 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (collecting
cases allowing parties to assert res judicata on
12(b)(6) motion). In addition, “[a] court may take
judicial notice of public records from other
proceedings.” Hemphill 605 F.Supp.2d at 186
(citing Covad Comms. Co. v. Bell Atl. Corp., 407
F.3d 1220, 1222 (D.C. Cir. 2005)); see also Does I
through III v. District of Columbia, 238
F.Supp.2d 212, 216-17 (D.D.C. 2002).
Court first addresses the claim-preclusion argument central
to Defendant's Motion, before turning to two additional
issues: the one cause of action that falls outside that
analysis and Defendant's request for sanctions.
thing is clear from Hall's Amended Complaint, it is this:
he does not believe that he was given a fair shake. He is
upset about both the terms of his settlement with DHS and the
process that led to his ultimate agreement. These are issues
that Hall has the right to raise in court. But that
entitlement is not without limitation. Once a court hears and
decides a case, a litigant may not bring the same claims in
another tribunal, hoping for a different result. This
intuitive principle is given life by the doctrine of claim
preclusion, which is a variety of res judicata. See
Taylor v. Sturgell 553 U.S. 880, 892 (2008). It
serves to shield parties from vexatious litigation and
establishes the finality of judgments necessary to engender
reliance. See Does I through III, 238 F.Supp.2d at
faced with a defense of claim preclusion, the Court draws the
applicable rule from the jurisdiction that handed down the
initial determination. That is because, under the Full Faith
and Credit Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, federal courts must
grant a state-court judgment “the same respect that it
would receive in the courts of the rendering state.”
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Epstein, 516 U.S.
367, 373 (1996). The Court, therefore, looks to the law of
the District of Columbia. See Stanton, 127 F.3d at 77
(holding that this rule applies to D.C. courts). Before
embarking on this task, one quick preliminary note: As courts
have observed, no “material differences” are
readily discernable between “the District of
Columbia's law of res judicata and the federal
common law of res judicata.” Id. at
78 n.4 (quoting U.S. Indus., Inc. v. Blake Constr.
Co, 765 F.2d 195, 204 n.20 (D.C. Cir. 1985)). When
helpful, this Court thus may also turn to federal common law
D.C. law, the application of claim preclusion rests on a
three-part test. The Court must ask:
(1) whether the claim was adjudicated finally in the first
action; (2) whether the present claim is the same as the
claim which was raised or which might have been raised in the
prior proceeding; and (3) whether the party against whom the
plea is asserted was a party or in privity with a party in
the prior case.
Peterson v. Washington Teachers Union, 192 A.3d 572,
575 (D.C. 2018) (quoting Calomiris v. Calomiris, 3
A.3d 1186, ...