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Covington v. Helix Electric, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 7, 2019

DANIEL M. COVINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
HELIX ELECTRIC, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. KELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Daniel Covington used to work for Helix Electric, Inc., as an electrician in the District of Columbia. He asserts that he injured himself while on the job at a worksite here, but he filed a workers' compensation claim in Maryland, where he resides. After his injury, and before he filed his claim, Helix suspended Covington from his position and never asked him back. Covington now claims Helix fired him in retaliation for his pursuit of workers' compensation benefits. In this lawsuit, he brings a single common-law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

         Helix has moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Covington cannot bring his wrongful discharge claim under District of Columbia law. In particular, it argues that Covington has failed to identify a public policy, as expressed in a statute or regulation, that his termination violated. And it further argues that the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has foreclosed the specific type of wrongful discharge claim he brings here.

         The Court agrees that Covington cannot bring his claim under District of Columbia law. But that does not end the matter; a choice-of-law analysis is required. The Court finds that under the District of Columbia's choice-of-law rules, Maryland law applies to Covington's claim. And under Maryland law, that claim may proceed. Accordingly, Helix's motion to dismiss is denied.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts, recounted here as alleged in the complaint, are uncomplicated. Daniel Covington is a licensed electrician. ECF No. 1 (“Compl.”) ¶ 3. In 2016, he was employed by Helix Electric, Inc., to work in the District of Columbia. Id.

         In November 2016, while on the job, Covington “tripped over debris in an unlit area, ” injuring his right foot, ankle, and leg. Id. ¶¶ 8-9, 11. Helix took him to receive medical attention. Id. ¶ 11. Five days later, Helix suspended him “without providing a reason.” Id. ¶ 12. Covington thereafter never “return[ed] to work for Helix.” Id. A week later, Covington filed a claim with the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission based on the injuries he sustained while working for Helix. Id. ¶ 14.

         Two years later, Covington commenced this action, bringing a single claim for the common-law tort of wrongful discharge. See Id. ¶¶ 7-17. He claims that “Helix terminated [him] as a result of [his injury] on November 6, 2016[, ] and [his] viable claim for workers' compensation benefit[s].” Id. ¶ 15. That termination, Covington contends, “[was] a clear violation of the public policies surrounding workers' compensation benefits, ” id. ¶ 17, and he seeks compensatory and punitive damages, see Id. at 4.

         Helix now moves to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. See ECF No. 3-1 (“MTD”). Covington has filed an opposition, ECF No. 6 (“Opp'n”), and Helix a reply, ECF No. 7.

         II. Legal Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). When ruling on such a motion, a court must determine whether the complaint contains “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 is generally limited to “the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached thereto or incorporated therein, and matters of which it may take judicial notice.” Stewart v. Nat'l Educ. Ass'n, 471 F.3d 169, 173 (D.C. Cir. 2006). It must accept the factual allegations as true and construe them liberally, granting the plaintiff “the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged, ” but it need not “accept legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations.” Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

         III. Analysis

         Helix's argument for dismissal is straightforward. Covington brings a single claim of wrongful termination in violation of public policy-specifically, termination in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim in Maryland. As this action proceeds under the Court's diversity jurisdiction, see Compl. ¶ 5, the Court must apply state substantive law. See Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 465 (1965). Wrongful termination, Helix acknowledges, is a common-law tort recognized in the District of Columbia. See MTD at 1 (citing Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., 597 A.2d 28 (D.C. 1991)). But to bring such a claim, Covington must identify the source of the alleged public policy in a statute or regulation. Covington's complaint, Helix notes, cites no such source in District of Columbia law. Indeed, Covington only references Maryland's workers' compensation statute. See Compl. ¶ 6. Therefore his claim must fail. See MTD at 4-5.

         Moreover, Helix argues, even if Covington could rely on a Maryland public policy-i.e. one expressed in Maryland's workers' compensation statute-for purposes of his tort claim under District of Columbia law, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals forecloses claims for wrongful discharge based on a statute that itself already provides a remedy for the party aggrieved by its violation. See Id. at 5 (citing Nolting v. Nat'lCapital Grp, Inc., 621 A.2d ...


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