United States District Court, District of Columbia
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
2015, Towana Johnson was arrested and held in the District of
Columbia's Central Cellblock, where she committed suicide
in her jail cell. Her four daughters, individually and as
representatives of Ms. Johnson's estate, sue the District
of Columbia, alleging constitutional and common law
violations. The District has moved for summary judgment.
Because no reasonable jury could issue a verdict for Ms.
Johnson's daughters based on the facts they have
presented, the Court will grant the District's
February 7, 2015, Towana Johnson, under the influence of PCP,
was arrested for kicking in a window of her daughter's
residence. See Pls.' Opp'n to Mot. Summ. J.
(“Opp'n) Ex. D, ECF No. 30-4. After receiving
medical treatment for injuries to her leg, she was taken to
the District of Columbia's Central Cellblock to await
arraignment on misdemeanor charges. Id. At
approximately 11:00 a.m. the next day, corrections officers
found her hanging from the top bunk of her cell. See
Opp'n Ex. B, ECF No. 30-2. Despite efforts to revive her,
Ms. Johnson died by suicide. Id. A prisoner in an
adjacent cell later told Metropolitan Police Department
(“MPD”) investigators that, at some point early
that morning, Ms. Johnson had been screaming for her
medication, banging on the walls, biting the jail-cell bars,
and threatening to kill herself. See Opp'n Ex.
C, ECF No. 30-3.
Johnson's four daughters sued the District of Columbia
for damages, alleging common law violations and a violation
of her Fifth Amendment constitutional rights. The District
moved to dismiss the Fifth Amendment claims. The Court denied
that motion, holding that the allegations in the Complaint,
accepted as true and with all reasonable inferences drawn in
the Plaintiffs' favor, could-if proven-sustain a finding
of liability. See Order Denying Partial Mot. to
Dismiss (“MTD Order”), ECF No. 7. The parties
then entered discovery, which was extended several times.
See Dec. 1, 2017 Minute Order; Feb. 2, 2018 Minute
Order; Mar. 29, 2018 Minute Order. With the discovery period
now closed, the District has moved for summary judgment,
contending that Plaintiffs cannot prove their
claims. Plaintiffs oppose the motion, which is
ripe for the Court's review.
Standard of Review
judgment is warranted when “the movant shows that there
is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party must demonstrate an
“absence of a genuine issue of material fact” in
dispute. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323
(1986). The Court must accept as true the nonmoving
party's evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in
their favor, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 255 (1986), but the nonmovant must rely on more
than “mere allegations” or conclusory statements,
Veitch v. England, 471 F.3d 124, 134 (D.C. Cir.
concede that they have not proffered sufficient facts to
support their common law claims. See Pls.'
Opp'n at 6. All that remains, then, is their Fifth
Amendment claim for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,
which creates a cause of action for state or local
officials' violation of federal constitutional rights.
Because Plaintiffs seek to hold the District itself liable,
they must show both a predicate constitutional violation and
an “affirmative link” between that violation and
a District “custom or policy, ” such that the
policy itself “was the ‘moving force' behind
the violation.” Baker v. District of Columbia,
326 F.3d 1302, 1306 (D.C. Cir. 2003); see Monell v.
Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978)
(holding that a municipality is liable under § 1983 only
if its agents committed a constitutional tort pursuant to
municipal policy or custom).
the predicate constitutional violation: Ms. Johnson's
daughters claim that her Fifth Amendment rights were violated
by police and correctional officers' “deliberate
indifference” to her suicide risk. Allegations of
unconstitutional “deliberate indifference” toward
the needs of those in jail most often arise in the Eighth
Amendment context, which is inapplicable here because Ms.
Johnson was a pre-trial detainee. See, e.g.,
Powers-Bunce v. District of Columbia, 479 F.Supp.2d
146, 152-53 (D.D.C. 2007). However, “courts have
consistently held that the right belonging to pretrial
detainees under the Fifth Amendment is at least as great as
the analogous Eighth Amendment right.” Hardy v.
District of Columbia, 601 F.Supp.2d 182, 188 (D.D.C.
2009) (internal punctuation omitted). Consequently, the
Eighth Amendment “deliberate indifference”
standard is instructive here. See, e.g.,
Powers-Bunce v. District of Columbia
(“Powers-Bunce II”), 659 F.Supp.2d 173,
179 (D.D.C. 2009) (applying Eighth Amendment standard to
Fifth Amendment claim of deliberate indifference to pre-trial
detainees); Hardy, 601 F.Supp.2d at 188-89 (same).
indifference' is a high bar.” Richardson v.
District of Columbia, 322 F.Supp.3d 175, 182 (D.D.C.
2018). To establish that Ms. Johnson's Fifth Amendment
rights were violated, Plaintiffs must show that officials
“(1) subjectively knew [she] was at a substantial risk
of committing suicide and (2) intentionally disregarded the
risk.” Powers-Bunce II, 659 F.Supp.2d at
179-80 (quoting Collins v. Seeman, 462 F.3d 757, 761
(7th Cir. 2006)). It is not enough to show that officials
should have known about a substantial risk; Plaintiffs must
show that officials were “both . . . aware of facts
from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial
risk of serious harm exists, and . . . [drew] the
inference.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825,
the District's liability: To hold the District itself
liable, Plaintiffs have alleged another type of deliberate
indifference-deliberate indifference on the part of the
District itself. See Baker, 326 F.3d at 1305-06
(discussing the distinction between the two “deliberate
indifference” inquiries). The D.C. Circuit has
explained that one way of showing that a District custom or
policy was the moving force behind a predicate constitutional
violation is to show that the District “‘knew or
should have known of the risk of constitutional
violation,' but did not act.” Jones v.
Horne, 634 F.3d 588, 601 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting
Baker, 326 F.3d at 1306). In this context, knowledge
is measured by objective standards, as the inquiry is whether
the District knew or should have known of the risk.
See Baker, 326 F.3d at 1306-07. In such
circumstances, if a municipality knows or should know
“that its agents will probably violate constitutional
rights, [it] may not adopt a policy of inaction.”
Warren v. District of Columbia, 353 F.3d 36, 39
(D.C. Cir. 2004).
to prevail on their § 1983 claim against the District of
Columbia, Ms. Johnson's daughters must show two things.
First, that she suffered a Fifth Amendment violation due to
municipal officials' deliberate indifference to their
subjective knowledge of her suicide risk. Second, that the
moving force behind this violation was the District's
inaction in the face of objective knowledge that its
officials would likely violate constitutional rights.
have offered five pieces of evidence in opposition to the
District's motion for summary judgment. First, deposition
testimony by Ms. Johnson's daughter, Erica Johnson,
detailing Ms. Johnson's arrest. See Opp'n
Ex. A, ECF No. 30-1. Second, an MPD “Case Notes”
document detailing an interview with Ronald Hunt, one of the
corrections officers who found Ms. Johnson in her cell.
See Opp'n Ex. B, ECF No. 30-2. The document
shows that Officer Hunt indicated that “inmates are
suppose[d] to be checked on every 30 minutes and he does not
know who had that assignment[, or] . . . . the last time [Ms.
Johnson] or any other inmate had been checked on[.]”
Id. at 1. Third, an MPD “Report of
Investigation” detailing an interview with Iyam Brice,
a detainee whose cell was adjacent to Ms. Johnson's.
See Opp'n Ex. C, ECF No. 30-3. The Report
indicates that Ms. Brice heard Ms. Johnson yelling about a
need for medication, banging on the wall, biting the cell
bars, and ...