Eddy v. Virgin Islands Water & Power Auth.

Decision Date05 February 1997
Docket NumberCivil No. 1996–48.
Citation35 V.I. 441
PartiesGabrielle EDDY, Plaintiff, v. VIRGIN ISLANDS WATER AND POWER AUTHORITY, James Brown, John Doe I, John Doe II, John Doe III, John Doe IV, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Virgin Islands

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Virgin Islands power company employee sued power company and manager for negligence, intentional misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for violations of the Fourteenth Amendment and § 1983. On defendants' motion to dismiss, the District Court, Moore, Chief Judge, held that: (1) employee stated claim for deprivation of substantive due process; (2) power company's actions satisfied “state action” requirement; (3) employee stated § 1983 claim against individual defendants in their individual capacities; (4) employee met intent requirement for intentional infliction claim; (5) court would exercise supplemental jurisdiction over intentional infliction claim; and (6) manager might have been “alter ego” of power company.

Motion granted in part and denied in part.

James M. Derr, St. Thomas, VI, for plaintiff.

Cathy M. Smith, WAPA, St. Thomas, VI, for defendants.

MEMORANDUM

MOORE, Chief Judge.

Plaintiff has alleged five causes of action, asserting that this Court has original jurisdiction over two of his claims under federal question jurisdiction, and that the Court should exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the three remaining tort claims as established under territorial law. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint, contending that the federal claims fail to state causes of action under which relief may be granted and that all of the claims are barred by workers' compensation exclusivity under Virgin Islands law.

I. FACTS

We take the facts as stated by plaintiff for purposes of deciding this motion to dismiss. On June 2, 1994, plaintiff Gabrielle Eddy [plaintiff or “Eddy”] was employed by defendant Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority [WAPA] as a first class lineman. Mr. Eddy had not been trained, qualified or given experience in maintenance, upkeep and repair of power lines and switches at WAPA's facility at Krum Bay, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Persons who possessed such experience, training or knowledge were classified as electricians, with a different job description than that of plaintiff.

Before June 2, 1994, Eddy had been suspended by WAPA for refusing to perform a job because it was unsafe. In September 1993, plaintiff was suspended for two weeks for refusing to climb a rotted wooden power pole.1 On other occasions before June 2, 1994, WAPA supervisors, including defendants identified as DOES I through IV in the complaint, threatened, intimidated and harassed Mr. Eddy for refusing or questioning job assignments based on a concern for his safety and the safety of others.

On the morning of June 2, 1994, WAPA management, including James Brown, determined that a switch located in the immediate vicinity of high voltage power lines in the ‘high yard’ at the Krum Bay facility required changing. Defendant James Brown decided that the switch should be changed while energized with over 14,000 volts of electricity. The supervisor of electricians, Mr. Everson Rawlins, was originally assigned this task by WAPA management. Rawlins refused to perform the procedure or to allow any of the electricians under his supervision to perform the work with the switch energized. Rawlins told Brown that the procedure was unsafe and that WAPA should wait until early on a Sunday morning when the switch could be de-energized and replaced safely.

When the electricians would not do the work on the switch while it was energized, James Brown had Mr. Eddy brought to the Krum Bay facility to do the job. Even though plaintiff told Brown that he was not qualified or trained to perform the task, Brown threatened the plaintiff with disciplinary action if he refused to do the work. Wearing polyester clothes and using an uninsulated wrench provided by WAPA, Mr. Eddy climbed a ladder to begin the job. As plaintiff was removing the old switch, the wrench predictably slipped off a rusted nut and passed close to an electric insulator. Fourteen thousand volts then arced over the insulator through the uninsulated wrench into plaintiff, causing him severe bodily injury.

Plaintiff alleges five causes of action in this lawsuit:

(1) negligence (Count I);

(2) intentional misconduct, prima facie tort (Count II);

(3) Fourteenth Amendment violation (Count III);

(4) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Violation (Count IV); and

(5) intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count V).

Defendants argue that the counts of the complaint either fail to state a claim for which relief may be granted or are barred by workers' compensation exclusivity under Virgin Islands law.

II. JURISDICTIONA. Plaintiff's Asserted Jurisdictional Bases

Plaintiff recites that the Court has jurisdiction over the subject matter of this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, since it is an action arising under the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States. Specifically, Eddy claims that the action arises under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Revised Organic Act of 1954.2 Plaintiff asserts that jurisdiction is also conferred on the Court by 28 U.S.C. § 1343, because his civil claim is based on an alleged deprivation of rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. The Court's jurisdiction over Eddy's other causes of action sounding in tort is claimed under the supplemental jurisdiction available through 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).3B. Plaintiff's Federal Claims

Count III of plaintiff's complaint purports to state a cause of action against all the defendants under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(a)(3)4 for a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, distinct from the claims asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Count IV of Mr. Eddy's complaint asserts a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against WAPA and the individual defendants. 5

1. Common elements

Plaintiff must allege two essential elements for a claim under either 28 U.S.C. § 1343(a)(3) or 42 U.S.C. § 1983: (1) that the defendants' conduct deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the United States Constitution or federal law; and (2) that their conduct occurred under color of law.

a. Deprivation of Rights under the Constitution

Plaintiff must show the Court that his claim alleges a deprivation of rights under the Constitution, in order to present a federal claim under either section 1343 or section 1983. If he cannot do so, then his claim is only one sounding in tort under local law, which would defeat this Court's subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff asserts that the defendants violated his rights to due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Plaintiff's claim is based upon the injuries suffered by him. Therefore, the deprivation he asserts is one of substantive due process, since he contends that defendants failed to provide him a safe workplace by placing him in danger. He does not claim a deprivation of procedural due process, such as a wrongful denial of some type of fair administrative process.

The Supreme Court has stated that it “has always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process because guideposts for responsible decisionmaking in this unchartered area are scarce and open-ended.” Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Texas, 503 U.S. 115, 125, 112 S.Ct. 1061, 1068, 117 L.Ed.2d 261 (1992). In Collins, the plaintiff was the wife of a municipal employee who had been asphyxiated while working in the sewers, resulting in his death. Plaintiff sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Fourteenth Amendment violations on the grounds that the municipality had the duty to give her husband adequate training to be able to handle the dangers associated with working in the sewers and to provide him a safe place in which to work.

In denying the claim, the Collins Court found that this type of case “is quite different from the constitutional claim advanced by plaintiffs in several of our prior cases who argued that the State owes a duty to take care of those who have already been deprived of their liberty.” Id. at 127, 112 S.Ct. at 1069–1070. The Supreme Court has expanded notions of Due Process to encompass situations in which a plaintiff's liberty had been restrained. See, e.g., Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 96–97, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 2265–2266, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987) (minimal standards for convicted felons); City of Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 244–245, 103 S.Ct. 2979, 2983–2984, 77 L.Ed.2d 605 (1983) (minimal standards for persons under arrest); Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 319–320, 102 S.Ct. 2452, 2459–2460, 73 L.Ed.2d 28 (1982) (minimal standards for persons in mental institutions); Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 530, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 1869, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979) (minimal standard for pretrial detainees).6

The Supreme Court explained why Mrs. Collins' allegations did not rise to the level of a constitutional claim:

We are also not persuaded that the city's alleged failure to train its employees, or to warn them about known risks of harm, was an omission that can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense. Petitioner's claim is analogous to a fairly typical state-law tort claim: The city breached its duty of care to her husband by failing to provide a safe work environment. Because the Due Process Clause ‘does not purport to supplant traditional tort law in laying down rules of conduct to regulate liability for injuries that attend living together in society,’ Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S., [327] at 332 [106 S.Ct. 662, 665, 88 L.Ed.2d 662], we have previously rejected claims that the Due Process Clause should be interpreted to impose federal duties that are analogous to those traditionally imposed by state tort law ... The...

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