Smith v. United States

Decision Date29 January 2016
Docket NumberCivil No. 14-cv-00959 (APM)
Citation157 F.Supp.3d 32
Parties Robert Smith, Jr., Plaintiff, v. United States of America, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Robert E. Cappell, Robert Cappell Attorney At Law, Bowie, MD, for Plaintiff.

April Denise Seabrook, U.S. Attorney's Office, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Amit P. Mehta

, United States District Judge
I. INTRODUCTION

In September 2011, Robert Smith, Sr., died while in the care of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Before his passing, Smith executed paperwork—witnessed by three employees of the Medical Center—that left his personal property and life insurance benefits to his nieces. Smith's son, Plaintiff Robert Smith, Jr., who inherited none of his father's property or assets, now brings this action claiming that the Medical Center's employees were negligent in acting as witnesses to his father's testamentary acts. For the reasons explained below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is granted.

II. BACKGROUND
A. Factual History

After a long history of battling various ailments, Robert Smith, Sr. (Smith), died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (the “Medical Center”) in Washington, D.C., on September 13, 2011. Shortly before his death, on August 22, 2011, Smith executed a Last Will and Testament in which he left all of his personal property to his nieces. Pl.'s Mot. to Amend. the Compl., Ex. 3, ECF No. 19-3, at 3-5 [hereinafter Mot. to Amend.]. He also signed other paperwork designating his nieces as the beneficiaries of two life insurance policies and a civil service retirement plan death benefit. Compl., ECF No. 1, at 3-5; Mot. to Amend., Ex. 3 at 7. Smith completed the paperwork while he was a patient at the Medical Center. Mot. to Amend., Ex. 3 at 3-5, 11. All three people who witnessed his testamentary acts—Lea Anderson, Keon Anderson, and Valerie Flowers (collectively the “Medical Center Employees”)—were, at the time, employees of the Medical Center. Id.

Smith's son, Plaintiff Robert Smith, Jr., received none of his father's personal property or assets. On April 11, 2013, more than 19 months after his father's death, Plaintiff filed an administrative claim on a Standard Form 95 (“SF-95”) with Defendant United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Mot. to Amend., Ex. 3 at 1. In his claim, Plaintiff accused the Medical Center Employees of “conspir[ing] and forg[ing] the signature of Robert Smith on a Last Will and Testament, on Designation of Beneficiaries for insurance benefits, death benefits, and retirement benefits.” Id. He further accused the Medical Center Employees of assisting Smith's nieces to steal his father's wallet, keys, credit cards, and other personal property. Id. Plaintiff asserted that the “above described acts constituted fraudulent misrepresentation, conspiracy, collusion, forgery, malfeasance, theft and negligence.” Id. After conducting an investigation, the Department of Veterans Affairs rejected Plaintiff's administrative claim on December 10, 2013. Id. , Ex. 4, ECF No. 19-4.

B. Procedural History

On June 6, 2014, Plaintiff filed this action naming the Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) as defendants. Compl. ¶ 3. In his Complaint, Plaintiff asserted five claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). Counts One through Four each alleged that the Medical Center Employees had acted negligently by serving as witnesses to Smith's various testamentary acts. Id. at 2-5. In Count Five, brought only against OPM, Plaintiff claimed that [OPM] has not responded to the Plaintiff's requests for information and has not paid death benefits to anyone.” Id. ¶ 25.

On March 9, 2015, Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6)

for, respectively, lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 16, at 1. Under Rule 12(b)(1), Defendants primarily asserted that Plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, which is a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing suit under the FTCA. Id. at 8-10. Specifically, Defendants contend that Plaintiff did not exhaust his remedies “because his claim to the Agency presented a wholly different set of facts, allegations, and claims than his Complaint filed in this Court.” Id. at 8. Under Rule 12(b)(6), Defendants argued that, because Plaintiff had failed to allege that the Medical Center Employees owed him any duty, he could not maintain his negligence claims. Id. at 13-15.

Instead of filing an opposition to Defendants' motion, Plaintiff moved to amend his Complaint in several ways. See generally Mot. to Amend the Compl., ECF No. 19. First, to shore up his negligence claims, Plaintiff asked to add allegations that (1) the Medical Center Employees “had a duty to follow regulations and customs of the Medical Center which prohibited employees from signing and witnessing documents concerning the personal affairs of [its] patients,” id. , Ex. 2, ECF No. 19-2, ¶ 12, and (2) he had “relied upon employees of the Medical Center to follow its regulations and customs,” id. ¶ 12. Second, Plaintiff sought to name the Medical Center as a defendant and to assert against it a claim that it had failed to adequately train its employees as to alleged policies that prohibited them from witnessing acts and signing documents concerning patients' personal affairs. Id. ¶¶ 16-19. Third, Plaintiff wished to include the allegation that he had “exhausted his administrative remedies.” Id. ¶ 4. Defendants opposed the Motion to Amend on the ground that Plaintiff's proposed amendments were futile. See generally Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. to Amend, ECF No. 21.

III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

The motions before the court require it to consider standards of review under Rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6)

, and 15(b). Those standards are as follows.

A. Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1)

A motion filed under Rule 12(b)(1)

imposes on a court “an affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority.” Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft , 185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C.2001). Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the court has subject matter jurisdiction to hear his claims. See

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife , 504 U.S. 555, 561, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992). “For this reason, ‘the [p]laintiff's factual allegations in the complaint ... will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Grand Lodge , 185 F.Supp.2d at 13–14 (citation omitted).

In analyzing a 12(b)(1) motion, a court need not limit itself to the complaint. Settles v. U.S. Parole Com'n , 429 F.3d 1098, 1107 (D.C.Cir.2005)

. It “may consider such materials outside the pleadings as it deems appropriate to resolve the question whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case.” Scolaro v. D.C. Bd. of Elections and Ethics , 104 F.Supp.2d 18, 22 (D.D.C.2000) (citations omitted); see also

Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis. , 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C.Cir.1992) ([W]here necessary, the court may consider the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.” (citations omitted)).

B. Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)

“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)

(quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ). A claim is facially plausible when “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The factual allegations in the complaint need not be “detailed”; however, the Federal Rules demand more than “an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id.

“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. If the facts as alleged fail to establish that a plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief can be granted, a court must grant defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See

Am. Chemistry Council, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 922 F.Supp.2d 56, 61 (D.D.C.2013).

In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)

, the court must accept a plaintiff's factual allegations as true and “construe the complaint ‘in favor of the plaintiff, who must be granted the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.’ Hettinga v. United States , 677 F.3d 471, 476 (D.C.Cir.2012) (quoting Schuler v. United States , 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C.Cir.1979) ). The court need not accept as true “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation,” Papasan v. Allain , 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986), or “inferences ... unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint,” Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp. , 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C.Cir.1994).

C. Motion to Amend Complaint under Rule 15(a)(2)

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2)

, a court should freely give leave [to amend] when justice so requires.” The Supreme Court has emphasized that Rule 15(a)'s “mandate is to be heeded.” Foman v. Davis , 371 U.S. 178, 182, 83 S.Ct. 227, 9 L.Ed.2d 222 (1962). “If the underlying facts or circumstances relied upon by a plaintiff may be a proper subject of relief, he ought to be afforded an opportunity to test his claim on the merits.” Id. Denying leave to amend is “inconsistent with the spirit of the Federal Rules,” and thus an abuse of discretion, id. unless the court provides a sufficient reason for so doing, such as “futility of amendment, undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, undue...

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