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Agbaje v. Hargrave Military Academy

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

July 10, 2018

MILES AGBAJE, Plaintiff,
v.
HARGRAVE MILITARY ACADEMY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JACKSON L. KISER SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Hargrave Military Academy's (“Hargrave”) Motion for Summary Judgment. Hargrave contends that the charitable immunity doctrine shields it from liability against Plaintiff Miles Agbaje's (“Plaintiff”) negligence claim. The matter was fully briefed by the parties, and I heard oral argument during a telephonic hearing on July 5, 2018. I have reviewed the pleadings, evidence of the parties, and arguments, and the matter is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated herein, I find that Hargrave was organized and does operate with a charitable purpose, and that Plaintiff was a beneficiary of Hargrave's charity at the time of his injury. Accordingly, Hargrave is entitled to the immunity afforded by the charitable immunity doctrine, and its motion for summary judgment will be granted.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Hargrave is a military boarding school located in Chatham, Va. In December of 2013, Plaintiff, a Maryland resident, was a student at Hargrave and was a member of Hargrave's junior varsity basketball team. During practice on December 4, 2013, Coach Tom Messenger required Plaintiff to run a drill which required him to drive to the basket while Messenger stood in his path with a pad to simulate a defender. While driving past Messenger, Messenger hit Plaintiff with the pad and caused him to fall. Plaintiff injured his knee.

         Coach Walker took Plaintiff to the hospital, and he was diagnosed with a knee sprain. He was told to avoid military formations, drills, and basketball, and was further instructed to rest and ice his knee. Plaintiff left the hospital on crutches. During his recovery, Robert Spears, [1] a Teacher and Counselor (“TAC”) Officer with duties that included overseeing barracks life and enforcing Hargrave's rules and policies, required Plaintiff to march and perform drills. As part of the drills, Plaintiff was required to crawl and bend his knee and carry a heavy rifle. Despite his complaints and swelling leg, Spears required Plaintiff to complete the drills as instructed. When Plaintiff complained that the drills were aggravating his knee injury, Hargrave's staff did not return Plaintiff to the hospital for follow-up care. Rather, he was seen and treated by Hargrave's team trainer.

         Plaintiff's parents picked him up for break on December 20, approximately two weeks after his injury.[2] Upon his return to Maryland, he was seen by an orthopedic surgeon on December 26 and diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (“ACL”). Plaintiff underwent surgery on his knee on January 17, 2014, and followed up with post-operative care for approximately one year.

         Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on August 11, 2017, asserting a single count of negligence against Hargrave. He is ostensibly proceeding pro se.[3] On May 23, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint [ECF No. 26], seeking to add a claim for gross negligence. That same day, Hargrave filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 28], arguing that the doctrine of charitable immunity applies and bars Plaintiff's action for simple negligence. On May 31, Plaintiff filed a Supplemental Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint [ECF No. 34], which sought to add both a claim of gross negligence and a claim of negligent hiring/retention.[4] I held a telephonic hearing on the Motions for Leave on June 16; Plaintiff did not participate.[5] Later that day, I entered an Order denying the Motions for Leave to File an Amended Complaint [ECF No. 48.] At that time, I stated that a “Memorandum Opinion setting forth the basis for this decision will be forthcoming.”

         As to Hargrave's Motion for Summary Judgment, the matter was fully briefed by the parties and I heard oral argument on the Motion by telephone on July 5, 2018. I have fully reviewed the briefs, argument, and evidence of the parties, and this Opinion sets for the reasoning for my decisions on both the Motions for Leave to Amend and the Motion for Summary Judgment.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, is entitled to a certain level of deference in his pleadings by virtue of his status as an unrepresented litigant. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). However, “the requirement of liberal construction [of pleadings for pro se parties] does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleadings to allege facts which set forth a federal claim, nor can the court assume the existence of a genuine issue of material fact where none exists.” Knowles v. S. C.D.C., No. 2:09-1921-MBS, 2010 WL 2990157, at *3 (D.S.C. July 29, 2010).

         A court should grant leave to file an amended complaint freely “when justice so requires . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). “[L]eave to amend a pleading should be denied, however, “when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, there has been bad faith on the part of the moving party, or the amendment would have been futile.” Johnson v. Oroweat Foods Co., 785 F.2d 503, 509 (4th Cir. 1986) (citing Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962)). “[D]elay alone is not sufficient reason to deny leave to amend. The delay must be accompanied by prejudice, bad faith, or futility.” Id. at 509-10 (citing Davis v. Piper Aircraft Co., 615 F.2d 606, 613 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 448 U.S. 911 (1980)).

         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); George & Co. LLC v. Imagination Entertainment Ltd., 575 F.3d 383, 392 (4th Cir. 2009). A genuine dispute of material fact exists “[w]here the record taken as a whole could…lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citing reference omitted); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A genuine dispute cannot be created where there is only a scintilla of evidence favoring the nonmovant; rather, the Court must look to the quantum of proof applicable to the claim to determine whether a genuine dispute exists. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50, 254. Not every factual dispute will defeat a summary judgment motion; there must be a genuine dispute over a material fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48. A fact is material where it might affect the outcome of the case in light of the controlling law. Id. at 248. On a motion for summary judgment, the facts are taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party insofar as there is a genuine dispute about those facts. Scott, 550 U.S. at 380. At this stage, however, the Court's role is not to weigh the evidence, but simply to determine whether a genuine dispute exists making it appropriate for the case to proceed to trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's Motions for Leave to File Amended Complaints

         Plaintiff's Motions for Leave to File Amended Complaints were brought in the waning hours of discovery. While delay alone “is not sufficient reason to deny leave to amend, ” Johnson v. Oroweat Foods Co., 785 F.2d 503, 509 (4th Cir. 1986) (citing Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962)), Plaintiff's amendments are prejudicial to Hargrave and brought for the purposes of avoiding Hargrave's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         An amended pleading is prejudicial if it adds “a new legal theory that would require the gathering and analysis of facts not already considered by the opposing party, but that basis for a finding of prejudice applies where the amendment is offered shortly before . . . trial.” Id. Here, the amendments were both offered immediately before the close of discovery, with the second amended complaint coming one day before discovery closed). While the allegation of gross negligence does not change the nature of the case, the allegation regarding negligent retention of Spears does. A case of negligence concerns Hargrave's actions in responding to Plaintiff's injuries; a case of negligent retention focuses on Spears's employment history and Hargrave's decisions in dealing with him. The former focuses on Plaintiff, while the latter has nothing to do with him. Drastically expanding the focus at this late date is undoubtedly prejudicial to Hargrave.[6]

         Hargrave accurately paints a portrait of a Plaintiff who was disinterested in his own case until the last minute. (See Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. pgs. 2-4, June 1, 2018 [ECF No. 41].) He has failed to engage in meaningful discovery, and failed to coordinate with opposing counsel to schedule his own deposition. He routinely claims that mail was not sent to him, a claim he has made against the court clerk as well. Although he is pro se, there is ample evidence to suggest that his father, an attorney, has been aiding Plaintiff throughout these proceedings. Plaintiff's failure to plan and pursue his case compounds the prejudice to Hargrave of a last-minute amendment.

         Plaintiff's amendment is also sought in an effort to avoid summary judgment. As discussed more fully infra, the doctrine of charitable immunity generally bars simple negligence actions in Virginia against a charity brought by a beneficiary of that charity. See, e.g., Ola v. YMCA of S. Hampton Roads, 621 S.E.2d 70, 72 (Va. 2005). On the same day that Hargrave filed its Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff filed his first proposed amended complaint. Even though he is pro se, the issue of charitable immunity was first raised in Hargrave's Answer. (See Answer, Aff. Defs. ¶ 4, Oct. 27, 2017 [ECF No. 7].) Despite knowing over six months ago that charitable immunity was an issue in this case, Plaintiff waited until the eve of the close of discovery to propose a cause of action that was not barred by the charitable immunity doctrine. His last-minute claims, filed on the same day as Hargrave's Motion for Summary Judgment, were clearly an effort to salvage his case and avoid summary judgment. Such conduct evinces Plaintiff's bad faith in pursuing the amendment. See Witmeyer v. Kilroy, 788 F.2d 1021, 1024 (4th Cir. 1986) (applying the doctrine of laches in holding that a denial of leave to amend was proper); Sandcrest Outpatient Servs., P.A. v. Cumberland Cnty. Hosp. Sys., Inc., 853 F.2d 1139, 1149 (4th Cir. 1988). See also Wimm v. Jack Eckerd Corp., 3 F.3d 137, 139-40 (5th Cir. 1993).

         Because Plaintiff's proposed amended complaints are prejudicial to Hargrave and pursued in bad faith, leave to amend was denied.

         B. Hargrave's Motion for Summary Judgment

         According to the Supreme Court of Virginia:

Virginia has favored a limited form of charitable immunity which exempts charitable organizations from some, but not all, tort liability. See Weston's Adm'x v. Hospital of St. Vincent, 107 S.E. 785, 792-93 (Va. 1921). A charitable institution is immune from liability to its beneficiaries for negligence arising from acts of its servants and agents, but only if due care has been exercised in their selection and retention. Bailey v. Lancaster Ruritan Rec. Ctr., Inc., 504 S.E.2d 621, 622 (Va. 1998). That immunity does not extend, however, to invitees or strangers having no beneficial relationship to the charitable institution. Thrasher v. Winand, 389 S.E.2d 699, 701 (Va. 1990). Further, the shield of ...

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