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Harris v. Bowser

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 19, 2019

JAMES HARRIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MURIEL ELIZABETH BOWSER, in her official capacity as Mayor of the District of Columbia, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         This case arises out of James Harris's arrest after a bar fight. He and his spouse, David Harris (collectively, the “Harrises”), have sued various entities and individuals under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and for malicious prosecution and defamation. Defendants Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”), MPD Chief Peter Newsham, and the District of Columbia have moved to dismiss the Harrises' Complaint. So too have Federal Defendants United States Attorney Jessie K. Liu and the Department of Justice. For the following reasons, the Court will grant both motions, and the Court also will dismiss the Complaint as to the remaining, non-moving Defendants.

         I. BACKGROUND

         One evening in February 2018, James and David Harris (“Mr. Harris” and “Dr. Harris, ” respectively) attended a performance at Town Danceboutique (“Town”) in Washington, D.C. Compl. ¶ 19, ECF No. 1.[1] They were standing near the stage when a group of men behind them complained that Mr. Harris was blocking their view. Id. ¶¶ 20-21. When Mr. Harris would not give up his spot, the group started to antagonize him-“hitting him in the back.” Id. ¶¶ 20-23.

         Mr. Harris asked the group to stop and warned that “it was not a good idea[] to touch him.” Id. ¶ 24. But the group did not stop, and one of them asked Mr. Harris, “What are you going to do about it?” Id. Mr. Harris “stuck the guy back, ” and a fight broke out. Id. Eventually, Dr. Harris de-escalated the situation, separating Mr. Harris from the group. ¶ 27. Douglas Scott Meyer, Town's Operating Manager, was injured during the altercation. Id. ¶¶ 27- 28.

         Mr. Meyer called the police while Mr. Harris was escorted out of the bar. Id. ¶¶ 29-30. When MPD officers arrived, most of the individuals involved in the tussle were gone. Id. ¶ 31. The officers asked the Harrises for identification, and one of the officers allegedly took Dr. Harris's military identification card and never returned it. Id. ¶ 32-35. Upset about his missing ID and the officers' unwillingness to provide their business cards, Dr. Harris called 9-1-1 to request that a supervisor come to the scene. Id. ¶¶ 36-37. Two officers from MPD's LGBT division arrived, introduced themselves, handed him their business cards, and took Dr. Harris's information. Id. ¶¶ 41-42.

         Meanwhile, Officer Maxwell Poupart handcuffed and detained Mr. Harris. Id. ¶ 38. Dr. Harris tried to intervene, but the officers told him to stand back. Id. ¶ 39. Officer Korey Marable interviewed both Mr. Meyer and Mr. Harris about the incident. Id. ¶¶ 43-44. Mr. Meyer complained that Mr. Harris had struck him in the face. See Id. ¶¶ 44-45, 49. The officers arrested Mr. Harris for simple assault. Id. ¶¶ 43-45. He was transported without a seat belt and in a patrol wagon that was too small for his 6'5” frame. Id. ¶¶ 67-68. Mr. Harris was later acquitted at trial. Id. ¶ 99.

         The Harrises sued, seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of their rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Id. ¶¶ 52-90. They also asserted claims for malicious prosecution and defamation. Id. ¶¶ 91-102.

         The Defendants fall into three categories. The “District Defendants” include Mayor Bowser, the MPD, Chief Newsham, several MPD officers in their official capacities, and the District. The “Federal Defendants” include Ms. Liu, in her official capacity as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and the Department of Justice. Finally, the “Remaining Defendants” include Mr. Meyer; The Art of Lounge, LLC; and Officer Poupart in his individual capacity. The District Defendants and the Federal Defendants have moved to dismiss the Harrises' Complaint. District Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss (“District Defs.' Mem.”), ECF No. 4-1; Fed. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Fed. Defs.' Mot.”), ECF No. 9. For the reasons given below, the Court will grant both motions and also dismiss the Complaint against the Remaining Defendants.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), 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)). The Court must “assume [the] veracity” of “well-pleaded factual allegations, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, and must “grant [the] plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged, ” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Allegations in a pro se complaint are held to a less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Braxton v. First. Transit, 322 F.Supp.3d 110, 116 (D.D.C. 2018). But the Court need not accept “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, they “presume[] that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). To survive a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a plaintiff must establish that the court has jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). Like with a motion under 12(b)(6), “the court must treat the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and afford the plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Jeong Seon Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d 95, 103 (D.D.C. 2016). But unlike when evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider documents outside the pleadings to evaluate whether it has jurisdiction. See Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). If the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction, it must dismiss the claim or action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), 12(h)(3).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Harrises' claims against Mayor Bowser, Chief Newsham, and the MPD officers in their official capacities are duplicative of their claims against the District.

         The Harrises sued Mayor Bowser and Chief Newsham only in their official capacities. See Compl. at 1. “When sued in their official capacities, government officials are not personally liable for damages, ” and “[a] section 1983 suit for damages against municipal officials in their official capacities is thus equivalent to a suit against the municipality itself.” Atchinson v. District of Columbia, 73 F.3d 418, 424 (D.C. Cir. 1996). “Based upon the understanding that it is duplicative to name both a government entity and the entity's employees in their official capacity, courts routinely dismiss claims against the officials to conserve judicial resources when the entity itself is also sued.” Trimble v. District of Columbia, 779 F.Supp.2d 54, 57 n.3 (D.D.C. 2011) (cleaned up).

         Here, the District of Columbia is a named defendant. Compl. at 1. Thus, the Harrises' claims against Mayor Bowser and Chief Newsham will be dismissed as duplicative of their claims against the District. See Cotton v. District of Columbia, 421 F.Supp.2d 83, 86 (D.D.C. 2006). So too for the Harrises' claims against the MPD officers sued only in their official capacity. Id.[2] Thus, the claims against the MPD officers in their official capacity will be dismissed as duplicative of the claims against the District.

         B. The MPD is non sui juris.

         The Plaintiffs sued the MPD. See Compl. ¶ 7. But because the MPD is a sub-agency of the District government, it cannot be sued in its own name. See Hunt v. District of Columbia, 2002 WL 1997987 at *1 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 29, 2002) (per curium) (“The district court correctly concluded that appellee Metropolitan Police Department is non sui juris.”). “[I]t is well-settled that a department or agency of the District of Columbia cannot sue or be sued in its own name in the absence of a statutory provision to that effect.” Whitehead v. D.C. Child Support Servs. Div., 892 F.Supp.2d 315, 319 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing Kundrat v. District of Columbia, 106 F.Supp.2d 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2000) (collecting cases)). The Harrises do not argue otherwise. See generally Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n to District Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Pls.' Opp'n to District Defs.”), ECF No. 7. The Court will therefore dismiss the Complaint against the MPD.

         C. The Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against the District under Section 1983.

         The Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against the District under Counts I (False Arrest), [3] II (Excessive Force), III (Due Process/Brady Violation), IV (Conspiracy to Commit Constitutional Violations), and V (Failure to Intervene). To hold the District liable under Section 1983, the Harrises must show that the alleged constitutional violation occurred through “execution of a government's policy or custom.” Monell v. United States, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). That is, ...


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