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Roe v. Wilson

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 4, 2019

MORGAN ROE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
REGINALD LA'VINCIENT WILSON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs John Doe and his minor son Morgan Roe allege that a District of Columbia public school teacher sexually assaulted Morgan and that the District and two school officials failed to take actions that would have prevented the assault.[1] They have sued the District of Columbia, the teacher (Reginald Wilson), and the school's principal (Dale Mann) and vice-principal (Jacqueline Anderson). All defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' second amended complaint either in full or in part. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant the District of Columbia's motion to dismiss in full; Wilson's partial motion to dismiss in part; and Mann and Anderson's motion to dismiss in part. The Court will deny Wilson's motion to strike one aspect of the plaintiffs' requested relief.

         I. Background

         As required on a motion to dismiss, the Court draws this factual background from the complaint, “assum[ing] the truth of all well-pled factual allegations.” Sissel v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The defendants naturally dispute many of the allegations, and Wilson “strongly denies” sexually harassing or assaulting Morgan. Wilson MTD, ECF No. 67, at 7 n.3.

         Plaintiffs originally filed this action in January 2018 against the District of Columbia, District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”), a former DCPS chancellor in his official capacity, and former DCPS teacher Reginald Wilson. In September, the Court granted plaintiffs leave to file a second amended complaint (“SAC”), which raises constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District of Columbia, Wilson, and John Eaton Elementary School Principal Dale Mann and Vice-Principal Jacqueline Anderson (Count I); a claim under Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. against the District (Count II); common-law negligence and negligence per se claims against Mann and Anderson (Count III); and common-law assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against Wilson (Count IV). See Second Am. Compl. (“SAC”), ECF No. 60-1. Plaintiffs allege that Wilson, Morgan's second-grade math teacher at the time, sexually harassed and eventually sexually assaulted Morgan, id. ¶ 2, and that school officials failed to respond appropriately to his father Doe's reports of concern prior to the assault, id. ¶¶ 4-7.

         According to plaintiffs, in mid-April 2012, Doe met with Morgan's homeroom teacher and Principal Mann to discuss Morgan's misbehavior in class. Id. ¶ 38. Morgan had not previously had behavioral problems. Id. ¶ 39. After the meeting, father and son ran into Wilson. Id. ¶ 49. According to plaintiffs, Wilson knelt before Morgan and told him how he should behave in school before telling Morgan how “special” he is and “demonstratively caress[ing]” the boy's face. Id. ¶¶ 50-51. A few days later, Morgan told his mother that Wilson had said he had “pretty eyes” in front of his math class. Id. ¶ 53.

         On April 24, 2012, Doe learned that Morgan had apparently become upset and kicked a chair around the classroom after Wilson did not give him candy. Id. ¶¶ 61, 67. The next day, Doe identified himself to Wilson as Morgan's father. Id. ¶¶ 68-70. He did so, Doe claims, because he believed child sex abusers tend to target fatherless children. Id. ¶ 71.

         Later that day, Vice-Principal Anderson called Doe into her office to explain that he was making Wilson feel uncomfortable. Id. ¶¶ 75-77. Doe responded that Wilson “should . . . feel uncomfortable” because he had “spent several months making sexual come-ons and overtures to his seven-year son Morgan, often in front of Morgan's classmates (ex. telling Morgan that he had ‘pretty eyes,' caressing Morgan's face with his hand while dramatically expounding on how ‘special' he believed Morgan to be, etc.).” Id. ¶ 78 (emphases in original). Over the course of the next month, Doe repeated “to Principal Mann what [he] had told vice-principal Anderson about Wilson making sexual overtures to Morgan.” Id. ¶ 80. However, according to plaintiffs, neither Mann nor Anderson responded to Doe's concerns. Id. ¶ 92.

         Plaintiffs allege that later in April or May 2012, Wilson asked Morgan to stay in the classroom alone with him while the other students waited outside. Id. ¶ 85. Wilson allegedly told the boy he had again been misbehaving before fondling Morgan's penis through his pants. Id. ¶¶ 86-87. Morgan told his mother about what happened but did not tell his father until over a year later in June 2013. Id. ¶¶ 91, 123.

         Meanwhile, Doe and his family moved to Illinois in February 2013. Id. ¶ 119. At his new school, Morgan's behavior deteriorated further and he was bullied for being “effeminate.” Id. ¶ 120. Morgan also expressed a desire to kill himself on multiple occasions. Id. ¶¶ 121-22. After Morgan finally told his father in June 2013 what had allegedly happened with Wilson, Doe called the police. Id. ¶¶ 123-24. The police interviewed Wilson and presented an arrest warrant to the prosecutor, but according to plaintiffs, she declined to pursue the case. Id. ¶¶ 128-30.

         The following year, in June 2014, Doe filed an administrative notice of a tort claim with the D.C. Office of Risk Management (“DCORM”) based on the alleged sexual harassment and assault. Id. ¶ 136.[2] Two years later, Doe was notified that “after a lengthy investigation, ” the office had determined that “the facts do not indicate liability on the part of the District of Columbia government, or its employees, in regards to this serious allegation.” Id. ¶ 148.

         As noted above, plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in January 2018. They amended the complaint in March, see ECF No. 18, and, after much back and forth, filed the operative second amended complaint in late September, see ECF No. 60-1.[3] The District of Columbia, Mann, and Anderson have moved to dismiss all of the claims against them. DC MTD, ECF No. 65; Mann and Anderson MTD (“M/A MTD”), ECF No. 80. Wilson moves for partial dismissal and has also moved to strike certain parts of the relief plaintiffs request. Wilson MTD.[4] After receiving multiple extensions, plaintiffs filed their oppositions to the District and Wilson's motions on December 11, 2018. ECF Nos. 81 & 82. Plaintiffs timely filed their opposition to Mann and Anderson's motion on December 17, 2018. See ECF No. 84. Despite being instructed that the Court will grant no further extensions, see Dec. 6, 2018 Minute Order, plaintiffs on December 18, 2018 moved for leave to file out of time amended oppositions to the District and Wilson's motions. See ECF No. 87. Those defendants oppose this request. See ECF Nos. 90 & 94. Nonetheless, the Court will consider the arguments and revisions advanced in those amended oppositions.[5] Defendants' motions to dismiss the second amended complaint are now ripe for the Court's review.

         II. Standard of Review

         In analyzing a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must determine whether the complaint “contain[s] 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)). This requires “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. To make this determination, the Court “must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true.” Id. It must also “constru[e] the complaint liberally in the plaintiff's favor with the benefit of all reasonable inferences derived from the facts alleged.” Stewart v. Nat'l Educ. Ass'n, 471 F.3d 169, 173 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Finally, the Court may only “consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached thereto or incorporated therein, and matters of which it may take judicial notice.” Id.

         III. Analysis

         A. John Doe's Claims

         Defendants have moved to dismiss all claims brought by John Doe in his individual capacity as time-barred under the applicable three-year statute of limitations. DC MTD at 11 (citing D.C. Code § 12-301(8)); M/A MTD at 7-8 (citing same). In response, Doe explains that he has “never sought relief for himself under Title IX or 42 U.S.C. [§] 1983, ” Pls' Opp'n to DC MTD at 10, but at the same time alludes to the possibility of filing tort claims against “any of the Defendants” in the future, id. at 11; Pls' Opp'n to M/A MTD at 2.

         To the extent Doe seeks or intends to bring tort claims in his individual capacity against any of the defendants, they are barred by section 12-301(8). Doe resists this outcome by urging Court to accept any tort claims under the “doctrine of laches.” See Pls' Opp'n to DC MTD at 11-13; Pls' Opp'n to M/A MTD at 2-3. But the equitable doctrine of laches is an affirmative defense available to defendants who would be prejudiced by a plaintiff's unreasonable delay in filing suit. Maalouf v. Islamic Rep. of Iran, 306 F.Supp.3d 203, 212 n.9 (D.D.C. 2018) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c)(1)). Out of an abundance of caution, though, the Court will liberally construe plaintiffs' argument as a more general one for equitable relief from the statute of limitations.

         Because any potential individual tort claims would be decided under D.C. law, they are subject to D.C. tolling rules. The trouble for Doe is that ordinarily, “District of Columbia law does not recognize an equitable tolling exception to the statute of limitations.” Johnson v. Marcheta Inv'rs Ltd. P'Ship, 711 A.2d 109, 112 (D.C. 1998). The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has recognized just “two limited exceptions to [its] generally strict application of the statute of limitations: the lulling doctrine and the discovery rule.” East v. Graphic Arts Indus. Joint Pension Tr., 718 A.2d 153, 156 (D.C. 1998). The lulling doctrine tolls the limitations period when a defendant “has done anything that would tend to lull the plaintiff into inaction, and thereby permit the limitation period prescribed by the statute to run.” Id. at 156-57 (citation omitted). “Anything” here means “something that amounted to an affirmative inducement to plaintiffs to delay bringing action.” Beach TV Props., Inc. v. Solomon, 306 F.Supp.3d 70, 89 (D.D.C. 2018) (citation omitted). And under the discovery rule, a “claim does not accrue until the plaintiff, exercising due diligence, has discovered or reasonably should have discovered all of the essential elements of her possible cause of action[.]” Farris v. Compton, 652 A.2d 49, 54 (D.C. 1994) (citation omitted).

         Doe offers two reasons why he should not be barred from advancing untimely tort claims but neither falls within these limited exceptions. First, he says he relied on the advice of an attorney to file what proved to be a dead-end administrative tort claim with the DCORM instead of a civil lawsuit in either D.C. or federal court. Pls' Opp'n to DC MTD at 11-12; Pls' Opp'n to M/A MTD at 2-3. Frustrated though he may be with the attorney's advice, it does not save Doe's individual claims from dismissal. In the analogous context of federal equitable tolling, this Court recently emphasized that “[e]quitable tolling is not appropriate in cases with ‘garden variety claim[s] of excusable neglect.' Where, as [claimed] here, ‘counsel blundered to his client's prejudice, the remedy is malpractice litigation against the culprit, not the continuation of litigation against an adversary who played no role in the error.'” Congress v. District of Columbia, 324 F.Supp.3d 164, 173 n.8 (D.D.C. 2018) (first quoting Irwin v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 96 (1990); then quoting Farzana K. v. Indiana Dep't of Educ., 473 F.3d 703, 706 (7th Cir. 2007)).

         Plaintiffs do suggest that the District played some role in the error by “unreasonably delay[ing] Doe, and thus Roe, from filing this action, by taking an unreasonable two-year period to issue what should have been an automatic denial of his tort claim.” Pls' Opp'n to DC MTD at 13; Pls' Opp'n to M/A MTD at 3. Unlike plaintiffs' first explanation for the delay, their second focuses on defendants' conduct and has the ring of the lulling doctrine. However, plaintiffs identify no affirmative misconduct on the part of the DCORM, such as misrepresenting that plaintiffs would prevail in that action, that prevented them from suing within the statutory limitations period.

         Because neither limited exception to the statute of limitations applies, the Court will dismiss any claims brought by Doe in his individual capacity as barred by section 12-301(8). That section does not apply to Morgan Roe, however, because he was and still is a minor. D.C. Code § 12-302(a)(1). By extension, the Court will not dismiss as time-barred any claims that Doe brings as a representative of his minor son. The remainder of this opinion, then, discusses only claims as they relate to Morgan and Doe in his representational capacity.

         B. Section 1983 Claim Against All Defendants (Count I)

         Plaintiffs bring constitutional claims against all defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. SAC ¶¶ 196-216. These claims are premised on purported violations of Morgan's Fifth Amendment due process and equal protection rights. Plaintiffs allege a substantive due process violation based on Morgan's right “to be free from conduct that violates his bodily integrity, ” id. ¶ 203 (D.C.), ¶ 206 (Wilson), and an equal protection violation based on Morgan's right “to be free from discrimination on the basis of his sex, ” id. ¶ 204 (D.C.), ¶ 207 (Wilson), ¶ 210 (Mann).[6]

         Wilson moves to dismiss some, but not all, of the § 1983 claims against him on the ground that plaintiffs have failed to allege recognized constitutional violations. Wilson MTD at 4, 8. The District of Columbia moves to dismiss the § 1983 claims against it because plaintiffs have failed to allege municipal liability. DC MTD at 11. And Mann moves to dismiss ...


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