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Johnson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 19, 2019

SHEREE JOHNSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In 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 motion.[1]

         I. Background

         On 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.

         Ms. 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.[2] Plaintiffs oppose the motion, which is ripe for the Court's review.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary 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. 2006).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiffs 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).

         First, 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).

         “‘Deliberate 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, 837 (1994).

         Second, 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).

         In sum, 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.

         Plaintiffs 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 ...


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