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Odom v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 3, 2019

JAUNICE ODOM, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Malachi Urquhart alleges that he tried to break up a fight between his mother, Plaintiff Jaunice Odom, and two women at the D.C. Wharf. While he was positioned between his mother and one of the women, the other woman hit him in the head with a bag of crabs. Urquhart claims that almost immediately, Defendant Metropolitan Police Department Officer Joseph Hudson placed Urquhart in a chokehold and threw him down, causing him to hit his head on the ground. Officer Hudson continued to apply the chokehold and climbed on top of Urquhart, who lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he was dragged to the sidewalk and placed in handcuffs.

         Hudson provides a different version. He claims that he was working as a part-time security officer at the Wharf when he heard there was a fight in progress. He turned to investigate and saw Urquhart hit a woman in the face and ball his fist to punch another woman. Because he had just seen Urquhart commit one crime and prepare to commit another, he detained Urquhart by grabbing him around the waist in a bear hug. Hudson contends that because Urquhart was flailing and shaking to get Hudson off, Hudson either lost his balance or tripped, and both fell to the ground.

         These conflicting versions of events require the court to deny Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment with respect to Urquhart's claims. Viewed in the light most favorable to Urquhart, his evidence shows that Hudson lacked probable cause to arrest Urquhart because he was an innocent peacemaker and not an assailant, that Hudson used excessive force restraining him, and that no reasonable officer in Hudson's situation would have believed that his conduct was lawful. Thus, Hudson is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         However, the court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment on Odom's negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. It is uncontested that Odom did not see the initial interaction between Urquhart and Hudson; she saw only Hudson pulling Urquhart to the sidewalk. Because Odom fails to demonstrate either that she feared for her own safety or that what she saw caused her emotional harm, two of the elements of her claim, Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Odom and Urquhart[1] filed their Amended Complaint on June 6, 2016, alleging claims against Hudson and the District of Columbia based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and common law torts. The court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss in part on March 31, 2017. See Odom v. District of Columbia, 248 F.Supp.3d 260 (D.D.C. 2017). The remaining counts were Urquhart's § 1983 claim against Hudson for violating his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure (Count I); Urquhart's § 1983 claim against Hudson for violating his Fourth Amendment rights through the use of excessive force (Count II); Urquhart's assault claim against Hudson and the District of Columbia (Count V); Urquhart's battery claim against Hudson and the District of Columbia (Count VI); Urquhart's false arrest claim against Hudson and the District of Columbia (Count VII); Urquhart's false imprisonment claim against Hudson and the District of Columbia (Count VIII); Urquhart's negligence claim against Hudson and the District of Columbia (Count IX); and Urquhart and Odom's negligent infliction of emotional distress claims against Hudson and the District of Columbia (Count X). All the claims against the District of Columbia are brought under a theory of respondeat superior.

         Defendants have now moved for summary judgment on all claims except Urquhart's claims of negligence (Count IX) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (part of Count X). Defendants argue that Hudson is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Urquhart's § 1983 claims based on unreasonable seizure and excessive force (Counts I and II); that Hudson is entitled to a qualified privilege with respect to Urquhart's common law claims for assault, battery, false arrest, and false imprisonment (Counts V, VI, VII, and VIII); that because of Hudson's qualified privilege, the District of Columbia cannot be held liable under a theory of respondeat superior for Urquhart's common law claims; and that Odom's negligent infliction of emotional distress claim (part of Count X) fails as a matter of law, because she neither feared for her safety nor suffered serious and verifiable emotional harm.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A fact is material if “a dispute over it might affect the outcome of a suit under governing law; factual disputes that are ‘irrelevant or unnecessary' do not affect the summary judgment determination.” Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

         The party moving for summary judgment has the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation marks omitted). The party opposing summary judgment then must “designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). When viewing the evidence, a court must “eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs have grouped their claims into three categories: 1) Urquhart's constitutional and common law claims based on an unreasonable seizure (Counts I, VII, and VIII); 2) Urquhart's constitutional and common law claims based on excessive force (Counts II, V, and VI); and 3) Odom's negligent infliction of emotional distress claim (part of Count X).

         A. Unreasonable Seizure Claims

         Section 1983 provides a cause of action against:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.

42 U.S.C. § 1983. A plaintiff “must allege both (1) that he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and (2) that the defendant acted ‘under color of' the law of a state, territory or the District of Columbia.” Hoai v. Vo, 935 F.2d 308, 312 (D.C. Cir. 1991).

         “Section 1983 claims are properly brought against government actors in their personal capacity.” Sherrod v. McHugh, 334 F.Supp.3d 219, 237 (D.D.C. 2018) (citing Jones v. Horne, 634 F.3d 588, 602 (D.C. Cir. 2011)). Therefore, “a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009). “Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior.” Id.

         The essence of Urquhart's § 1983 unreasonable seizure claim (Count I) is that Hudson arrested him without probable cause, thereby depriving him of the right secured by the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable seizures, and that Hudson acted under color of state law in his capacity as an MPD officer.[2] The elements of Urquhart's common law false arrest claim (Count VII) are substantially identical to the elements of his constitutional claim for false arrest, because in each instance “the focal point of the action is the question whether the arresting officer was justified in ordering the arrest of the plaintiff.” Scott v. District of Columbia, 101 F.3d 748, 753 (D.C. Cir. 1996). Additionally, as to Urquhart's false imprisonment claim (Count VIII), “[t]here is ‘no real difference as a practical matter between false arrest and false imprisonment.'” Barnhardt v. District of Columbia, 723 ...


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