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Johnson v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

March 15, 2018

JAMES B. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.


          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge

         Plaintiff James B. Johnson, proceeding pro se, brings this action seeking medical costs and compensatory damages for defendants' alleged negligence. This matter is before the court on two motions: 1) defendant Hope Village, Inc.'s motion to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and 2) the United States' motion to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Roseboro notices were issued on April 3, 2017, and October 24, 2017. Johnson filed responses to both defendants' pleadings without attaching any counter-affidavits or other evidence. The parties have agreed that a hearing is not necessary. Because the court construes the complaint to include a second negligence claim that neither defendant has addressed, however, the court will treat both defendants' motions to dismiss as partial motions to dismiss and will grant both partial motions as to plaintiff's slip-and-fall claim. However, the court will not dismiss the complaint as a whole, and the parties are to submit further briefing as set out in the accompanying order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2013, [1] while in the custody of the United States Marshals Service, Johnson was transported to a court hearing in Lynchburg, Virginia. Upon arriving, Johnson, who was in a five-point restraint, attempted to walk backwards out of the transport van and step down onto a narrow step. Johnson alleges that the marshals failed to supervise and assist his descent from the van, and he fell, injuring his right knee.

         In February 2016, Johnson was in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at Hope Village, a halfway house located in the District of Columbia. There, Johnson “slipped on wet steps and injured his right knee.” (Compl. ¶ 8.) He notified his case manager and his social worker at Hope Village, who instructed Johnson to receive medical treatment, for which BOP would pay, at Unity Healthcare. Dr. Amy Morgan evaluated Johnson, ordered an MRI, and determined (before the MRI was conducted) that he needed surgery.

         “Given the delay by the Defendants” (id. ¶ 13), the MRI was not conducted until May 3, 2016, the day of Johnson's release from Hope Village. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Morgan called Johnson to confirm that surgery was required. Dr. Morgan “offered that, had [Johnson] not been released, she would have made a formal request to the Defendants for surgery.” (Id. ¶ 14.) Johnson wrote letters to Hope Village and to BOP requesting help with securing surgery. After receiving no response, Johnson filed a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claim, which BOP denied. Johnson asserts that he continues to suffer pain on a daily basis.

         Liberally construing Johnson's complaint leads the court to conclude that Johnson is potentially asserting two different negligence claims. First, the complaint clearly alleges negligence with regard to his slip and fall on wet stairs at Hope Village in February 2016. The defendants have construed his complaint as raising only that claim. But Johnson's complaint also appears to allege a second negligence claim due to the delay in his receiving medical care. Understandably, neither Hope Village nor the United States construed the complaint as broadly as the court, and so neither has addressed that claim in their filings. Nevertheless, the court believes that it must treat the complaint as containing both claims. Thus, the court will treat both motions as partial motions to dismiss, addressing only the slip-and-fall claim.


         A. Hope Village's Motion to Dismiss

         Hope Village moves to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         1. Standard of review

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's allegations must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This standard “requires the plaintiff to articulate facts, when accepted as true, that ‘show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief, i.e., the ‘plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). The plausibility standard requires more than “a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         In determining whether the plaintiff has met this plausibility standard, the court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint and any documents incorporated into or attached to it. Sec'y of State for Defence v. Trimble Navigation Ltd., 484 F.3d 700, 705 (4th Cir. 2007). Further, it must “draw[] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, ” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999), but it “need not accept legal conclusions couched as facts or ‘unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments, '” Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, 680 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008)).

         Although the court liberally construes pro se complaints, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), “[p]rinciples requiring generous construction of pro se complaints are not . . . without limits, ” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985). The Fourth Circuit has explained that “[t]hough [pro se] litigants cannot, of course, be expected to frame legal issues with the clarity and precision ideally evident in the work of those trained in law, ...

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