Afanasieva v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., Civil Action 21-1881 (RDM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtRANDOLPH D. MOSS, United States District Judge.
Docket NumberCivil Action 21-1881 (RDM)
PartiesINGA AFANASIEVA, individually and as next friend to S.M., her minor child, Plaintiffs, v. WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.
Decision Date03 March 2022

INGA AFANASIEVA, individually and as next friend to S.M., her minor child, Plaintiffs,


Civil Action No. 21-1881 (RDM)

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 3, 2022


RANDOLPH D. MOSS, United States District Judge.

At around 7:00 p.m. on December 6, 2019, Plaintiff Inga Afanasieva's minor son, S.M., boarded a Metrobus Route 70 bus to travel home. During the ride, a man approached S.M. and began an altercation that quickly escalated out of control. The encounter ended with the man repeatedly punching and kicking S.M., stealing his iPhone, and then fleeing the bus, leaving S.M. with a broken nose, broken jaw, and three broken teeth. To date, the assailant has not been apprehended.

Plaintiff Afanasieva brings this action individually and as next friend to her son against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), alleging that WMATA- which operated the bus where the attack occurred-negligently breached the duty of care it owed to S.M. as a passenger. WMATA has moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that it has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claim that the driver of S.M.'s bus negligently failed to intervene to prevent harm to S.M. and that Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged the elements that claim. With respect to Plaintiffs' other negligence claims, however, the Court concludes that WMATA's


sovereign immunity bars suit. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT in part and DENY in part WMATA's motion to dismiss, Dkt. 12.


Plaintiffs' complaint alleges the following facts, which the Court accepts as true for the purpose of assessing the motion to dismiss. Gordon v. U.S. Capitol Police, 778 F.3d 158, 163- 64 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

At around 7:00 p.m. on December 6, 2019, Plaintiff S.M., who at the time was 15 years old, boarded a northbound Route 70 bus near 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. Dkt. 3-1 at 11 (Compl. ¶ 19). S.M. sat near the back in a two-person seat on the bus's elevated platform. Id. S.M. sat next to the window and placed his bag on the empty seat next to him. Id. Some time later, two men who appeared to be in their “late teens or early twenties” boarded the bus near Georgia Avenue. Id. (Compl. ¶ 20). The men did not pay the required fare and walked to the back of the bus, where they began to interact with a group of high-school-aged girls who were seated behind S.M. Id.

After a few minutes, one of the men walked over to S.M., “stood over” him, and indicated that he wanted to sit next to him, even though there were “a number of empty seats throughout the bus.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 21). S.M. moved his bag and allowed the man to sit. Id. The man then began to question S.M. about his iPhone and asked S.M. whether he would sell it. Id. at 12 (Compl. ¶ 21). When S.M. refused, the man “became more aggressive with his questions.” Id.

At this point, the group of girls sitting behind S.M. “began to antagonize” S.M. and “encourage the man to escalate his actions.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 22). The group grew so loud, Plaintiffs allege, that “everyone on the bus could hear the commotion.” Id. The man then “tried


to take off [S.M.]'s glasses, ” prompting S.M. to “push[] the man's hand away.” Id. Undeterred, the man responded by “dumping a bag of potato chips on [S.M.]'s head, ” while the girls “laughed and cheered the man on.” Id. The man then attempted to take S.M.'s glasses a second time. Id. (Compl. ¶ 23). When S.M. slapped his hand away, the man “punched [S.M.] in the side of the head” and then repeatedly “kick[ed] and punch[ed] [S.M.] while [S.M.] ducked down and tried to protect himself.” Id. (Compl. ¶¶ 23-24).

After the attack, the man grabbed S.M.'s iPhone, and he and his companion attempted to forcefully exit the bus, at first “throwing themselves at the back door” before “mov[ing] to the front of the bus and confront[ing] the bus driver, ” who ultimately opened the doors and let the men go. Id. (Compl. ¶¶ 25-26). To date, neither of the men has been identified. Id. (Compl. ¶ 26).

The attack caused S.M. “serious physical injuries, pain and suffering, and additional emotional harm.” Id. at 13 (Compl. ¶ 33). He sustained “a broken nose, broken jaw, and three broken teeth;” “suffers from nightmares;” and is now “terrified to ride public transportation.” Id. at 13-14 (Compl. ¶ 33).

In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that the entire altercation between S.M. and his assailant “occurred . . . in the direct view of the operator of the bus, who was acting in her capacity as an agent, servant, and/or employee of Defendant WMATA.” Id. at 12 (Compl. ¶ 27). According to Plaintiffs, “[t]he driver ignored the disturbance and did not take any action to address the situation or prevent harm to [S.M.], in direct dereliction of [WMATA's] responsibilities as a common carrier and in breach of the duty owed to [S.M.] as a passenger.” Id. at 12-13 (Compl. ¶ 28). Specifically, Plaintiffs assert that the bus driver breached her duty to


S.M. by “fail[ing] to activate [the bus's] silent alarm, ” which would have alerted WMATA's central office and passers-by to contact the police. Id. at 13 (Compl. ¶¶ 30-32).

Plaintiffs initiated this action in D.C. Superior Court on April 28, 2021, id. at 1, 8, and served WMATA with process on June 15, 2021, id. at 1. On July 14, 2021, WMATA filed a notice of removal, Dkt. 1; Dkt. 3 (Errata), in this Court pursuant to Section 81 of the WMATA Compact, Pub. L. No. 89-774, § 81, 80 Stat. 1324, 1350 (1966) (codified at D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(81)). See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441(a); 1446(a). WMATA filed a motion to dismiss on August 16, 2021, arguing that WMATA's sovereign immunity bars Plaintiffs' suit; that the public duty doctrine prevents Plaintiffs from asserting a negligence claim against WMATA; and that Plaintiffs have failed plausibly to allege that WMATA owed S.M. a duty to intervene or proximately caused his injuries. Dkt. 12. Plaintiffs filed their opposition to the motion on October 14, 2021, Dkt. 14, and WMATA filed its reply on October 28, 2021. On November 19, 2021, WMATA filed a “Second Motion to Dismiss, ” in which it sought to supplement its initial motion with a request to dismiss Plaintiff Afanasieva's claim for emotional distress damages. Dkt. 16. Plaintiffs consented to WMATA's requested relief on December 17, 2021, Dkt. 18, and, accordingly, the Court granted WMATA's motion, Dkt. 16, and dismissed that claim, Minute Order (Dec. 20, 2021). Plaintiffs continue to oppose the basis for WMATA's first motion to dismiss, Dkt. 12, however, and that motion is now ripe for determination.


When confronted with a motion to dismiss under both Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must first consider whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94-95 (1998). Federal courts are courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction and “possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.” Kokkonen v.


Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). A motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) may present a “facial” challenge or a “factual” challenge to the Court's jurisdiction. Hale v. United States, No. 13-1390, 2015 WL 7760161, at *3 (D.D.C. Dec. 2, 2015). A “facial” challenge to the Court's jurisdiction “contests the legal sufficiency of the jurisdictional allegations contained in the complaint.” Id. When framed in this manner, the Court “accept[s] all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw[s] all reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor” but does not “assume the truth of legal conclusions.” Williams v. Lew, 819 F.3d 466, 472 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (quotation marks omitted). In this sense, the Court must resolve the motion in a manner similar to a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). See Price v. Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 294 F.3d 82, 93 (D.C. Cir. 2002). Alternatively, when a defendant presents a “factual” challenge to the Court's jurisdiction, the “factual allegations of the complaint are not entitled to a presumption of validity, and the Court is required to resolve factual disputes between the parties.” Hale, 2015 WL 7760161, at *3. In assessing jurisdiction, “[t]he Court may consider the complaint, any undisputed facts, and ‘the [C]ourt's resolution of disputed facts.'” Id. (quoting Phoenix Consulting Inc. v. Republic of Angola, 216 F.3d 26, 40 (D.C. Cir. 2000)). When a defendant files a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, the plaintiff ordinarily bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction. Id. However, “a defendant claiming sovereign immunity in a motion to dismiss ‘bears the burden of proving' they qualify for it.” Broidy Cap. Mgmt. LLC v. Muzin, 12 F.4th 789, 796 (D.C. Cir. 2021) (quoting Lewis v. Mutond, 918 F.3d 142, 145 (D.C. Cir. 2019)).

A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6) “tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235,


242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court “must first ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state [the] claim to relief,' and then determine whether the plaintiff has pleaded those elements with adequate factual support to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Blue v. District of Columbia, 811 F.3d 14, 20 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (alterations in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675, 678 (2009)). The complaint, however, need not include “detailed factual allegations” to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A plaintiff may survive a Rule 12(b)(6)...

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