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Sandberg v. Vincent

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 26, 2019

EMMA SANDBERG, Plaintiff,
v.
NATHANIEL VINCENT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant Nathaniel Vincent has filed a motion to dismiss one of the two counts in Plaintiff Emma Sandberg's Complaint. Upon consideration of the briefing, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court finds that Ms. Sandberg has failed to state a claim of negligence or gross negligence. Accordingly, the Court shall GRANT Mr. Vincent's [9] Motion to Dismiss, in Part, Plaintiff's Complaint and shall DISMISS Count II of that Complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Sandberg's pertinent factual allegations are relatively straightforward, and the Court accepts them as true for purposes of this motion. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam); see also Mem. Op., Sandberg v. Vincent, 319 F.Supp.3d 422, 425 (D.D.C. 2018), ECF No. 15 (summarizing those allegations previously).

         According to the Complaint, Plaintiff and Defendant met on the evening of July 22, 2017, during a gathering initiated by Ms. Sandberg's roommates at their D.C. apartment. Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 11, 14. Both Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Vincent were from other states; each was living in the nation's capital only for the summer. Id. ¶¶ 4-6, 9, 10. The evening's agenda included a “pregame” for drinking purposes before the ostensible main event of heading to the club. Id. ¶¶ 11-13, 15. Both Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Vincent drank alcohol during the pregame, to the point that Ms. Sandberg “became increasingly-and very visibly-intoxicated.” Id. ¶¶ 13, 15, 17.

         As a 17-year-old, Ms. Sandberg planned to skip the clubbing, which she understood was off limits to her, but evidently she thought Mr. Vincent, a rising college sophomore, would be among the partygoers departing for that venue. Id. ¶¶ 12, 18, 19. Although Ms. Sandberg had divulged her phone number to Mr. Vincent, at his request, earlier in the evening, id. ¶ 16, there is no indication that she made a reciprocal request for his number or invited him to linger. To her surprise, however, she discovered that Mr. Vincent was in the restroom until after the others had left. Id. ¶¶ 19, 20.

         Despite Ms. Sandberg's repeated exhortations that Mr. Vincent then hasten to join the group, he stayed and repeatedly insisted that she drink more alcohol, namely the remainder of a tequila bottle. Id. ¶¶ 21-24. “Hoping that it would make him leave her alone, ” she reluctantly complied. Id. ¶¶ 24-27. “As [Ms. Sandberg thereafter] slipped in and out of consciousness, [Mr. Vincent] carried her to the bedroom, where he proceeded to force sexual intercourse upon her without her consent.” Id. ¶¶ 28, 29. Only upon her slow realization and yell “in pain and fear, at the top of her lungs” did Mr. Vincent discontinue, after some time. Id. ¶¶ 30, 31.

         On Ms. Sandberg's behalf, her father brought this action against Mr. Vincent, seeking $3, 000, 000 in compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to interest and costs, for allegations of sexual assault and battery (Count I), and negligence and gross negligence (Count II). Id. ¶¶ 33-41. Mr. Vincent has moved to dismiss only Count II.

         While this motion was pending, Ms. Sandberg attained the age of majority and was substituted for her father as the real party in interest in this case. See Min. Order of Aug. 9, 2018.[2]The Court also denied Mr. Vincent's motion to proceed in this case under pseudonym. Sandberg, 319 F.Supp.3d 422. Briefing having concluded, Mr. Vincent's motion is now ripe for resolution.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint contain “‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); accord Erickson, 551 U.S. at 93. Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the “grounds” of “entitle[ment] to relief, ” a plaintiff must furnish “more than labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing, e.g., Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). Instead, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 570; Erickson, 551 U.S. at 93. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'- ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         There is no dispute that Ms. Sandberg properly invokes the Court's diversity jurisdiction over her common law claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1); Compl. ¶¶ 1, 3-5, 33-41 (alleging diverse citizenship and a sufficient amount in controversy). Both parties cite D.C. standards for Ms. Sandberg's common law claims. See, e.g., Def.'s Mem. at 3 n.1; Pl.'s Opp'n at 3. Accordingly, the Court finds that Ms. Sandberg has waived any available choice-of-law objection to applying the tort law standards of the District of Columbia. See, e.g., CSX Transp., Inc. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 82 F.3d 478, 482-83 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (suggesting that choice-of-law argument can be waived); Plesha v. Ferguson, 725 F.Supp.2d 106, 111 n.2 (D.D.C. 2010) (Kollar-Kotelly, J.) (citing Davis v. Grant Park Nursing Home LP, 639 F.Supp.2d 60, 65 (D.D.C. 2009)) (finding waiver). In any case, the District of Columbia is not only the forum jurisdiction but also where all of the alleged activity occurred. See Felder v. WMATA, 174 F.Supp.3d 524, 528 (D.D.C. 2016) (citing, e.g., In re APA Assessment Fee Litig., 766 F.3d 39, 51, 53 (D.C. Cir. 2014); Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 (Am. Law Inst. 1971)).

         Mr. Vincent challenges Count II on two primary grounds. First, he argues that there is no gross negligence claim under D.C. law in this context, where no statute specifically provides for such a claim. Def.'s Mem. at 4-6. Second, Ms. Sandberg purportedly fails to sufficiently plead the elements of a negligence claim, which would be fatal to both the negligence and gross negligence claims. See Id. at 4, 6-15.

         The Court shall address these arguments in reverse order, for the second argument may be sufficient to dispose of Ms. Sandberg's Count II in entirety. Even if the pleading deficiencies in Ms. Sandberg's negligence claim are not likewise dispositive of her gross negligence claim, however, the Court agrees that Ms. Sandberg has failed to show that a gross negligence claim is available to her.

         For convenience, the Court shall refer to Ms. Sandberg's negligence and gross negligence allegations as attempting to plead separate claims. Because the Court shall find that both the negligence and gross negligence allegations in Ms. Sandberg's Complaint independently warrant dismissal, the Court need not reach the issue of whether consolidating them in a single count was procedurally proper. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 6-7; Def.'s Reply at 7-8. Any of Ms. Sandberg's other arguments that the Court does not expressly address below are unavailing.

         A. Negligence Claim

         In this jurisdiction, “a claim alleging the tort of negligence must show: (1) that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, (2) breach of that duty, and (3) injury to the plaintiff that was proximately caused by the breach.” Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 289 (D.C. 2016) (quoting Hedgepeth v. Whitman Walker Clinic, 22 A.3d 789, 793 (D.C. 2011)) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). In Count II, Ms. Sandberg pleads that Mr. Vincent “owed [her] a duty of ordinary care”; that “[t]hrough his actions on the night of July 22, 2017, [he] breached this duty”; and “[a]s a direct and proximate result of [his] negligent and/or grossly negligent unconsented physical ...


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