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Goolsby v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 11, 2019

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA et al., Defendants.



         On an October day in 2015, Jason Goolsby was pondering whether to withdraw money from an ATM outside a Citibank in Washington, D.C. From inside the ATM vestibule, Goolsby saw a young couple with a child in a stroller approaching and, he says, held the door to help them in. The mother, Caucasian, apparently felt uneasy in the presence of Goolsby and his two friends, all African-American. So she told her husband that she forgot something in the car, immediately left the vestibule, and called the police. What transpired next is the subject of this lawsuit.

         Goolsby alleges that dispatchers in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) misreported the woman's 911 call and that responding MPD officers attacked him without good reason. He brought a spate of federal constitutional and D.C. common-law claims, seeking redress for the injuries he allegedly sustained. In an earlier decision considering only the constitutional claims, the Court held that the dispatchers and officers were entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed all but one of the claims. Turning now to the defendants' motion to dismiss the common-law claims-with the barrier of qualified immunity no longer standing in the way-the Court reaches a different result: almost all of Goolsby's common-law claims survive dismissal and must proceed to discovery.

         I. Background

         A. Factual History

         On a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's factual allegations must be taken as true, Lee v. District of Columbia, 733 F.Supp.2d 156, 159 (D.D.C. 2010), so the facts set forth here are taken exclusively from Goolsby's rendering.[1] The defendants no doubt dispute certain aspects of his account.

         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.

         B. Procedural History

         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.

         The Defendants moved to dismiss the suit in its entirety. In an earlier ruling, the Court dealt only with the federal-constitutional claims, finding all of them-except for a false arrest claim against the dispatchers-barred by qualified immunity. Goolsby, 317 F.Supp.3d at 596. Shortly thereafter, the parties stipulated to the dismissal of that claim. Stipulation of Dismissal, ECF No. 45. At the same time, the parties asked the Court to retain jurisdiction over the D.C. common-law claims. Joint Motion Requesting that the Court Retain Supplemental Jurisdiction, ECF No. 44. The Court granted the motion, and after the parties informed the Court that no further briefing on the common-law claims was necessary, the matter is now ripe for the Court's resolution.

         II. Legal Standard

         The District and all individual defendants have 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) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). 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, 733 F.Supp.2d at 159. However, the Court need not accept legal conclusions in the complaint. See, e.g., id.

         III. Analysis

         The Court will address each common-law claim in the order it appears in the complaint, splitting the analysis, where appropriate, for the dispatchers and the responding police officers.

         A. Count I: Negligence

         “The elements of a cause of action for negligence are [1] a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, [2] a breach of that duty by the defendant, and [3] damage to the interests of the plaintiff, [4] proximately caused by the breach.” Taylor v. District of Columbia, 776 A.2d 1208, 1214 (D.C. 2001). Goolsby contends that the dispatchers and the responding officers breached their duty of care to him by conveying false or inaccurate information from a citizen's 911 call, failing to investigate the information provided in the dispatch in order to “accurately assess and respond to a potential criminal situation[, ]” stopping a citizen without reasonable and articulable suspicion, and using excessive force in detaining him. Id. at ¶¶ 61-63. The dispatchers counter that Goolsby has failed to plead facts that could establish the duty and causation elements. The officers, for their part, argue that Goolsby's negligence claim is improperly pled because his allegations in support of the claim are coextensive with his allegations in support of his intentional tort claims. The Court disagrees on both fronts.

         1. Dispatchers

         The dispatchers submit that Gooslby's allegations, even if taken as true, fail to establish the duty and causation elements of a negligence claim.

         Turning first to duty, the critical question is whether the District of Columbia's “public duty” doctrine-which holds that law enforcement personnel “are not generally liable to victims of criminal acts for failure to provide adequate police protection”-applies to the facts in this case. Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1, 4 (D.C. 1981). The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has applied the public duty doctrine to a wide range of emergency-services personnel. See Hines v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 133 (D.C. 1990) (expanding the doctrine to shield city ambulance drivers); Wanzer v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 127, 129, 132 (D.C. 1990) (holding that the doctrine barred a suit alleging death resulting from delayed dispatch of an ambulance); Johnson v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 140, 143 (D.C. 1990) (reasoning that the facts pled “could not sustain liability insofar as they merely represent the failure of the firefighters to perform any particular step that might have alleviated [the decedent's] condition”). When the doctrine applies, liability is barred unless the plaintiff can establish that he was in some special relationship with the defendant. Turner v. District of Columbia, 532 A.2d 662, 667 (D.C. 1987); Hines, 580 A.2d at 138.

         Crucially, though, the public duty doctrine typically applies in cases where a plaintiff complains about law enforcement's failure to act. See Liser v. Smith, 254 F.Supp.2d 89, 102 (D.D.C. 2003) (collecting cases); District of Columbia v. Evans, 644 A.2d 1008, 1017 n.8 (D.C. 1994) (explaining that the public duty doctrine “deals with the question whether public officials have a duty to protect individual members of the general public against harm from third parties or other independent sources”). Here, however, Goolsby complains that it was the dispatchers' (and the responding officers') affirmative misconduct-rather than their failure to protect-that caused his injuries. He alleges that the dispatchers “passed on false information to the MPD Officers, ” Pl's Opp., ECF No. 25, at 15, an affirmative act that he says caused the responding officers to respond over-aggressively, id. at 16. Because ...

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