D.C. Superior Court Opinions

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E.g., March 28, 2017
E.g., March 28, 2017
Format: XXX-DWLR-XXXX
  • Unjust Imprisonment Act

    Pre-Suit Notice / Scope of Damages / Acts by Third Parties / Calculation of Lost Income / Determination of Life Expectancy for Calculating Future Injuries / Pro Tanto Credit to Offset Damages


    Plaintiff, who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for twenty-two years and suffered repeated sexual assaults, resulting in HIV infection while imprisoned, is entitled to damages of $9,154,500 under the Unjust Imprisonment Act. (D.C. Code § 2-421 et seq.). For the purposes of filing pre-suit notice, the six month notice period began to run at Plaintiff’s formal exoneration and not from the date he was sentenced for his wrongful conviction. The Unjust imprisonment Act makes the District of Columbia strictly liable for all for all injuries and damages sustained by qualifying claimants as a proximate result of unjust imprisonment and does not distinguish between damages for loss of liberty and other types of compensatory damages. Plaintiff may recover damages for pain and suffering and other physical and emotional injuries in addition to loss of liberty. The Act does not limit damages to injuries suffered in correctional facilities within the District of Columbia. To the extent Plaintiff has proved that his injuries and damages in facilities and time periods outside of the District of Columbia were proximately caused by his wrongful conviction and unjust imprisonment, those injuries and damages are compensable under the Act. Plaintiff may recover damages for the time spent incarcerated between the jury’s guilty verdict and his sentencing. The Act does not utilize common law fault-based rules and claimants may recover damages for harms caused by intentional acts by third parties suffered while unjustly incarcerated. As such, Plaintiff is entitled to full compensatory damages for the special harms resulting from the many sexual and other physical assaults he suffered in prison and from his resultant HIV infection. Plaintiff’s expert analysis of income lost as a result of his incarceration is too speculative to support his lost income claims since it considered the average wages of African-American males in the District of Columbia who lacked high school diplomas and worked full time but took no account of the high percentage of those who are unable to find and maintain full time employment. Plaintiff’s expert also acknowledged that he had no basis to believe that the amount of Plaintiff’s actual earnings since his release from prison had been negatively affected by his unjust imprisonment. The Court will reopen the record and take judicial notice of the 2014 Life Tables in order to consider Plaintiff’s request for future injuries. The absence of expert testimony establishing the applicability of the Life Tables to Plaintiff goes to the weight the Life Tables should receive but not to their admissibility. However, the Life Tables do not prove Plaintiff’s expected lifespan by a preponderance of the evidence. There is nothing in the record to assess the impact of Plaintiff’s HIV infection, elevated cholesterol, the extreme stress and psychological injuries sustained in prison or his ongoing depression and recent suicidal tendencies. Damages of $1,000 per day spent in prison, $250 per day spent on parole, and $200 per day between exoneration and this trial will fully and fairly compensate Plaintiff for the harm he suffered while on parole as a proximate result of his unjust imprisonment. Plaintiff’s total damages for all compensable injuries and harms sustained in all compensable time periods are $9,154,500. Defendant is not entitled to a pro tanto credit to offset damages Plaintiff received from a settlement with the United States.

  • D.C. Superior Court

    Criminal Law

    Sixth Amendment Right to a Trial by Jury / Additional Statutory Penalties Creating a “Serious Crime” / Deportable “Crime of Domestic Violence”

     

     

    Noncitizens’ convictions for misdemeanor domestic violence offenses do not create a constitutional right to a jury trial. The Immigration and Nationality Act allows for automatic deportation from the United States of any noncitizen convicted of a statutorily-defined “crime of domestic violence.” Offenses of simple assault, D.C. Code §22-404(a)(1), and misdemeanor sexual abuse, D.C. Code § 22-3006, criminalize acts that do not necessarily involve the type of “physical force” contemplated in 18 U.S.C. § 16(a) and cannot be considered deportable “crimes of domestic violence” under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Accordingly, Defendants cannot be deported as a conviction of such offenses and do not face the “additional statutory penalties” that would make them “serious crimes” giving rise to a constitutional right to a jury trial. Motions demanding jury trial denied.

  • D.C. Superior Court

    Freedom of Information Act

    Speech or Debate Statute / Deliberative Process Privilege / Segregability

     

     

    The Speech or Debate statute (D.C. Code § 1-301.42) is a withholding statute within the meaning of Exemption 6 of the D.C. Freedom of Information Act. The language of the statute is mandatory, leaving no discretion, and it provides specific criteria to guide withholding. The Speech or Debate statute provides both testimonial immunity and nondisclosure privilege. Legislative immunity applies to both individual councilmembers and the Council in general so long as the activities at issue constitute legislative activities. The Council properly applied the deliberative process privilege. While the Zoning Commission has voted on the proposal that is the subject of the requested documents, the Council has not yet made a final decision on it so the documents are predecisional. Non-responsive documents should not be disclosed. The Council has met its burden with regard to segregability since the Council could not reasonably segregate the responsive portions of the documents without rendering the nonprivileged portions either nonsensical or completely non-responsive to the FOIA request. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment granted and Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment denied.

  • D.C. Superior Court

    Attorney’s Fees

    Bad Faith Exception to the American Rule / Frivolous Action / Good Faith Misunderstanding / Extraordinary Circumstances Demanding a Forceful Judicial Response / Fee Awards for Pro Bono Counsel

     

    Plaintiff and its counsel acted in bad faith when they filed a claim for possession due to failure to pay rent without first serving Defendants with a thirty-day notice to quit. Relying on a prior notice to vacate based on an alleged threat by one of the defendants to do bodily harm to the owner of the building that makes no mention of failure to pay rent is insufficient to support a good faith misunderstanding because it violates black letter law and a court had already found that notice legally insufficient to support a claim by the time Plaintiff’s counsel attempted to rely on it. This error would never have come to light if Defendants were not represented by counsel, unlike most tenants before the Landlord and Tenant Branch, so the award of attorney’s fees under the bad faith exception is particularly apt in order to deter future abuse. Fee award to pro bono representation is appropriate because it enhances the ability of such organizations to represent needy clients and can help deter abusive litigation practices. Such awards may be calculated through the use of prevailing market rates for private attorneys. Since both Plaintiff and its counsel participated in the bad faith litigation of the case, fees should be imposed jointly and severally. Defendants’ motion for award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs granted.

  • Trusts
    Cy Pres

    Proposal to merge the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art may proceed. Cy pres relief is available only if carrying out the terms of a trust is impracticable. The court need not determine what level of deference to grant the trustees’ cy pres proposal since the trustees have satisfied the requirements for obtaining cy pres relief, even without deferring to the Trustees’ assessment that it is impracticable to carry out the Deed of Trust and that their proposal is as close as possible to the settlor’s original purpose. The preponderance of evidence standard applies to cy pres proceedings. While the trustees have not established that it would be impossible to continue under the existing deed of trust, they have established that it would be impracticable to do so. The Corcoran has been running at a deficit for a majority of the past eleven years, its facilities require immediate and substantial renovations, and the majority of its assets are temporarily or permanently restricted. Other possibilities for addressing the Corcoran’s shortfall are unlikely to succeed. Intervenors’ proposal to sell off pieces is likely to incur sanctions and their plans for fundraising are overly optimistic. The case law is consistent that insufficiency of funds is a basis for cy pres relief. The proposal advanced by George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art is as near as possible to the settlor’s original intent since it keeps the institution in the District of Columbia, maintains continuity for the college, and retains and preserves the original facilities. Petition and motion for cy pres are granted.

  • Standing

    Retail Service Station Act / Express and Implied Statutory Authority / Parens Patriae Standing / Quasi-Sovereign Interest

     

    Plaintiff District of Columbia lacks standing to seek injunctive and declaratory relief against marketing agreements by service stations for purchase and sale of gasoline allegedly in violation of the Retail Service Station Act. The Retail Service Station Act does not expressly grant Plaintiff the authority to enforce violations of Subchapter III and there is no implied authority for Plaintiff to bring suit on behalf of “any person.” Plaintiff has not alleged a quasi-sovereign interest sufficiently concrete to justify parens patriae standing under common law. All allegations of injury to a substantial segment of the population are abstract and hypothetical. Plaintiff fails to allege the potential effects of the marketing agreements to stifle competition and is requesting purely injunctive relief rather than alleging any specific future harm. Motions to dismiss granted.

  • D.C. Superior Court

    Property Law

     Good Faith Intention by Landlord to Recover Premises for Immediate and Personal Use / Service / “Occupancy” Under § 42-3505.01(d)

     

    Claim for possession of premises by landlord in order to occupy them for immediate and personal use under § 42-3505.01(d) is unsuccessful because the intended use is not “immediate” and would be too sporadic to constitute “occupancy.” Plaintiff has only properly served one party since the process server served one notice to vacate on only one spouse and the plain language of § 42-3206 requires that each tenant be served with the notice. Plaintiff did not effect proper substitute service on the remaining tenant-spouse because server did not inquire whether he was home and there was no indication from the circumstances that he was unwilling or unable to come to the door to be served. The claim against the tenant not served with the notice must be dismissed.  As to the tenant who was served with the notice, and against whom Plaintiff’s claim is not moot, Plaintiff’s stated intention to stay in the apartment for up to three to five days per month does not constitute  a good faith intention to recover possession for “immediate and personal use and occupy as a dwelling” under § 42-3505.01(d). While § 42-3505.01(d) does not expressly require the owner use the premises as a primary residence, the statute’s language indicates a more robust use of premises than the sporadic use to begin at an undetermined time intended by Plaintiff.

  • Employment Compensation

     

    Worker’s Compensation Act / Lent Employee Doctrine / Professional Sports / D.C. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 60 / Relieving a Party from Judgment due to Mistake or Excusable Neglect

     

    The Worker’s Compensation Act (“WCA”) bars claims by Plaintiff, a professional soccer player, for negligent treatment of injury against Defendant D.C. United, his team. Defendant D.C. United is at least a special employer of Plaintiff under the WCA. The structure of Defendant Major League Soccer makes it a concurrent employer of the players with the various teams. It is unnecessary to trace each dollar D.C. United paid for Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation insurance since its capital contributions to MLS were more than sufficient to cover its share of payment to MLS insurance. While one employer’s coverage does not create tort immunity for workplace injuries while on the job for a second, unrelated employer, the close relationship between D.C. United and MLS and the fact that D.C. United paid for MLS insurance means that the policy’s absence of language naming D.C. United as an insured is not determinative. Despite the Operating Agreement’s language that only MLS is to obtain a policy for Plaintiff, the contract manifested the entities’ intent to delegate the responsibilities of the league and D.C. United therefore complied with § 32-1534 by providing workers’ compensation insurance coverage to Plaintiff through MLS Insurance. Defendant D.C. United’s motions for relief and summary judgment are granted and Plaintiff’s claims against it are dismissed. Commonwealth Defendant’s motions to join are denied.

  • Discovery

    Confidentiality Agreement

     

    Defendant is enjoined from enforcing confidentiality agreement with a witness in an age discrimination suit. Defendant cannot use a confidentiality agreement to control or otherwise limit interactions between Plaintiff and a witness. Defendant offers no counter-argument about how it would be prejudiced and the witness will be the subject of much discovery if Plaintiff’s allegations are true. Plaintiff’s motion for a protective order to prevent obstruction of witnesses granted in part.

  • Employment Law

    DC Human Rights Act / Common Law Abusive Discharge / 42 U.S.C. § 1981 / Hostile Work Environment / Discriminatory Termination

     

    A plaintiff’s litigation to conclusion of a DC Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”) claim against one defendant before the Office of Human Rights (“OHR”) precludes a later claim in court against another defendant that is based on essentially the same facts and legal theories.  All claims that were previously raised against Plaintiff’s former supervisor in the OHR that are now raised against Defendant are dismissed.  Plaintiff has not set forth an actionable claim of common law abusive discharge as termination for insisting that Defendant perform verifications in accordance with unspecified “federal regulations” as that is not a specified claim recognized by the DC Court of Appeals and has not made a showing that an officially declared policy warrants the creation of a new exception to the at-will doctrine.  Plaintiff’s racial origin need not have been the express subject of harassing incidents in order to establish a prima facie case of hostile work environment under § 1981.  Plaintiff has presented sufficient indirect evidence of pretext as the hostile treatment against her could reasonably be inferred to arise from racial animus and Defendant’s explanation for her termination—that she was “edgy” and “defensive”—may have been the result of her discriminatory treatment.  Motion for summary judgment granted in part and denied in part.

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