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DeLeon v. Wilkie

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 14, 2020

CHRIS deLEON, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT WILKIE, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Chris deLeon is a former employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center here in Washington. His stint there was short but tumultuous. In just two years, he was involved in several altercations, including one with his superior and another with a Medical Center visitor, the latter of which resulted in criminal assault charges. After conducting an investigation into this incident, the agency terminated deLeon. Plaintiff responded with this suit against the VA and several officials, asserting various constitutional and statutory causes of action arising from his termination and other purported mistreatment. Defendants now move to dismiss, contending that this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over certain counts and that deLeon has failed to state any claims upon which relief can be granted. Agreeing on both scores, the Court will grant the Motion and dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         As it must at this stage, the Court draws the facts from the Complaint. See Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). In May 2017, deLeon began working as a police sergeant for the Medical Center. See Compl., ¶ 6. Some nine months later, in February 2018, he became embroiled in a parking-lot altercation, sustaining several injuries. Id., ¶¶ 8-9; see id., ¶ 10 (limited range of motion in his shoulder and inability to carry more than five pounds). DeLeon's doctor, therefore, ordered him to limit his physical activity. Id., ¶ 11. So when Plaintiff returned to work, the agency assigned him a new role - one that met these limitations - within the Physical Security and Training section. Id.

         Shortly after, in May 2018, Defendant Elton Artis became the Medical Center's Acting Deputy Chief of Police. Id., ¶ 13. Among other duties, he supervised deLeon's assigned section. Id., ¶ 14. That month, Artis asked Plaintiff to submit an agency form that sets out an employee's specific work limitations. Id. Believing that he had already submitted the necessary paperwork, deLeon refused. Id. Not so easily deterred, Artis reached out to Human Resources for Plaintiff's medical records. Id., ¶ 15. When deLeon learned that HR staff had been attempting to view his records without his consent, he protested to the Deputy Chief of that department. Id., ¶ 16. His efforts, however, met with little success. The deputy remarked that staff had the authority to review his records; she also explained that because he was unable to fulfill his assignment's duties, he was going to be reassigned to a different role. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that shortly thereafter he was subjected to harassment. At one point, for instance, Artis confronted deLeon “in an angry tone while in possession of his service weapon.” Id., ¶ 18. Fearing for his safety, Plaintiff filed a complaint in D.C. Superior Court, where he sought a protective order against Artis. Id. The agency then allegedly retaliated against him through a series of workplace incidents. Id., ¶¶ 19-30. More on that later.

         According to the Complaint, his ill treatment did not end there. At the beginning of 2019, the agency reassigned deLeon to an entry desk at the Medical Center, where he was responsible for screening and processing visitors. Id., ¶¶ 29-30. While on duty there, on February 28, he became entangled in yet another imbroglio, this time with visitor Ilene Dadey. Id., ¶ 31. DeLeon alleges that she, in contravention of agency policy, attempted to photograph or videotape him. Id. Concerned for his safety, Plaintiff grabbed her arm. Id. When Artis learned of this, he contacted the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which investigated the matter and arrested deLeon for assault. Id. The agency, too, reviewed the incident and placed him on administrative leave. Id., ¶¶ 32-34. It eventually concluded that his conduct was inappropriate and terminated him on April 8. Id., ¶ 34. Later that month, Plaintiff appealed his termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board - an agency whose relevance will become plain shortly. Id.

         Plaintiff, however, did not wait for an MSBP decision. On April 29, shortly after filing his administrative appeal, he brought suit against Defendants Artis, Robyn Hardy (the Chief of Police of the Medical Center), Stanley Staton (an Assistant Medical Director), and the agency. Id., ¶ 5. He brings four claims - three constitutional and one statutory. Id., ¶¶ 35-49. The first asserts that Defendants retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment after he sought a protective order against Artis. Id., ¶¶ 35-37. The second alleges that a number of agency actions damaged his reputation and hindered his employment prospects in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Id., ¶¶ 38-41. The third makes out Privacy Act violations based on the nonconsensual disclosure of his personal information. Id., ¶¶ 42-44. And the fourth alleges that Defendants, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, conspired with MPD to arrest deLeon. Id., ¶¶ 45-49.

         As recompense for the violations, he seeks, inter alia, compensatory and punitive damages to the tune of 10 million dollars. Id. at 19. Defendants, for their part, have moved to dismiss deLeon's entire suit under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “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 treat the complaint's factual allegations as true and must grant [the] plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow, 216 F.3d at 1113 (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)). It need not accept as true, however, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation” or an inference “unsupported by thge facts set out in the complaint.” Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986); then quoting Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994)). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the court has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear his claims. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). A court also has an “affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority.” Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001). As such, “‘the [p]laintiff's factual allegations in the complaint . . . will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion' than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Id. at 13-14 (quoting 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350 (2d ed. 1987)).

         III. Analysis

         As mentioned above, deLeon accuses Defendants of violating the First Amendment (Count I), Fifth Amendment (Count II), and Privacy Act (Count III), as well as conspiring to violate the Fourth Amendment (Count IV). See Compl., ¶¶ 35-49. The First and Fourth Amendment claims are asserted against individual Defendants pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). In contrast, the Fifth Amendment count is brought against the agency itself in the name of the Secretary. Although the Defendants vary depending on the count in question, the Court need not parse this too finely at this point given the result. For ease of analysis, it will begin by addressing Counts I and II together, as they fall for the same reasons. It will then separately analyze the remaining ones.

         A. Counts I & II

         Plaintiff first claims that he suffered certain work-related harms - e.g., delayed and arbitrarily deflated performance reviews, reduced workload and overtime potential, undesirable assignments, and termination - that were inflicted in retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. See Compl., ¶¶ 35-37 (Count I). That speech, he alleges, consisted of filing for a protective order in Superior Court against Artis following a heated confrontation. Id., ¶ 37. DeLeon further alleges that Defendants, through these adverse employment actions, violated his due-process rights, harmed his reputation, and “prevented him from obtaining employment in his chosen profession.” Id., ¶¶ 38-41 (Count II). These wrongs, he argues, violated his Fifth Amendment rights. Id.

         In moving to dismiss these two counts, Defendants contend both that subject-matter jurisdiction is lacking and that the claims suffer from substantive defects. See Defs.' MTD at 6- 11; Defs.' Reply at 3-7. The Court considers these arguments in turn.

         1. Jurisdiction

         As to their first submission, Defendants maintain that deLeon has failed to exhaust his remedies under the Civil Service Reform Act (codified as amended in scattered sections of 5 U.S.C.). See Defs.' MTD at 6-7. Before delving into this argument, the Court offers a few general words on the ...


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