Williams v. U.S.

Decision Date31 March 1995
Docket NumberNo. 94-1698,94-1698
Citation50 F.3d 299
PartiesPatricia WILLIAMS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant & Third Party Plaintiff-Appellee, v. MERIDIAN MANAGEMENT CORPORATION, formerly known as Contract Services Company, Incorporated, Third Party Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Kenneth Warren Smith, Haas & Dennis, P.C., McLean, VA, for appellant. Nicholas Stephan Altimari, Office of the U.S. Atty., Richmond, VA; Dawn Elizabeth Boyce, Lewis, Trichilo, Bancroft, McGavin & Horvath, P.C., Fairfax, VA, for appellees. ON BRIEF: Helen F. Fahey, U.S. Atty., Paula P. Newett, Asst. U.S. Atty., Alexandria, VA; Julia Judkins, Lewis, Trichilo, Bancroft, McGavin & Horvath, P.C., Fairfax, VA, for appellees.

Before ERVIN, Chief Judge, and HAMILTON and LUTTIG, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed as modified by published opinion. Judge HAMILTON wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge ERVIN and Judge LUTTIG, joined.

OPINION

HAMILTON, Circuit Judge:

Patricia Williams (Williams) sustained personal injury when she slipped and fell in the lobby of a building leased by the United States. Alleging that the United States' negligence in maintaining the premises caused her injuries, Williams subsequently sued the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C.A. Secs. 1346(b), 2671-2680 (West 1965 & Supp.1993). The United States denied liability and in turn filed a third-party complaint against Meridian Management Corporation (Meridian), contending that Meridian, as an independent contractor, was liable for any injuries sustained by Williams. See id. Sec. 2671. Ruling from the bench, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the United States, concluding that the FTCA provided no basis for liability on behalf of the United States. By virtue of this grant of summary judgment, the district court held that the third-party complaint was moot. Like the district court, we conclude that the United States is not liable for Williams' injuries, but we reach this conclusion via a different procedural avenue: we find that the district court should have dismissed the suit for want of subject matter jurisdiction. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1).

I.

The United States leases office space (the Premises) in Arlington, Virginia, for the United States Marshal Service (USMS) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In order to maintain the Premises, on October 1, 1992, the United States entered into a comprehensive contract with Meridian under which Meridian would provide custodial and maintenance services. This contract was in force at the time Williams was injured. The sweep of the contract was very broad and allocated to Meridian the obligation of maintaining the Premises with respect to repair, cleanliness, and safety. For instance, pursuant to the contract, Meridian, as contractor, was "fully responsible for the management, operation, maintenance, repair and support operations" of the Premises. (J.A. 29). The contract provided further that Meridian was "responsible for the day-to-day inspection and monitoring of work performed to ensure compliance with the contract requirements." Id. at 33. Additionally, the contract required that Meridian "take all necessary precautions to prevent injury to the public, building occupants, or damage to the property of others." Id. at 76. That Meridian's burdens under the contract were encompassing is therefore beyond cavil.

In addition to detailing Meridian's broad, general responsibilities, the contract also provided that Meridian undertake specific tasks. For example, the contract expressly required that Meridian keep the floors in the lobby of the Premises free of "trash and debris or foreign matter" and ensure that they be "slip resistant" on a daily basis. Id. at 27, 53. Meridian also was obligated to maintain the floor mats around the doors in good repair. Apart from keeping the floors in a safe condition, Meridian was also obligated to keep the doors and the weather stripping around them in sound repair. Indeed, the contract allocated to Meridian the duty to "provide all needed supplies, materials, equipment, vehicles, and services" in order to maintain the Premises. Id. at 29. Regarding the weather stripping, the United States twice specifically ordered Meridian to replace the weather stripping, reminding Meridian of its obligations under the contract. The United States explained that adequate weather stripping was essential to maintaining the Premises. Complying with its obligations, Meridian, after some time had elapsed, eventually replaced the weather stripping. In addition, the contract expressly recited that Meridian would comply with federal regulations providing for safety and health measures; and to this end, the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), see 29 C.F.R. Secs. 1910.1-1910.441 (1992), were incorporated into the contract. The OSHA regulations provide explicitly that "[t]he floor of every workroom shall be maintained in a clean and, so far as possible, a dry condition." 29 C.F.R. Sec. 1910.22(a)(2) (1992).

Additionally, the contract demanded that Meridian have an engineer on duty twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week so that the United States would have a responsible party to contact. The purpose of the engineer was to ensure that the Premises were maintained in a safe condition. Because the engineer was an employee of Meridian, Meridian was responsible for his work; moreover, the engineer being on-call twenty-four hours per day, Meridian had constant access to the Premises. Both by affidavit and at the hearing before the district court, the United States established that Meridian had constant access to the Premises.

With respect to implementation of Meridian's obligations, the record reveals that no United States employee or agency exercised day-to-day control or supervision over Meridian employees or the work performed by Meridian employees under the contract. Rather, the contract specified that Meridian was to "provide all management, supervision, labor, materials, supplies and equipment ... and ... plan, schedule, coordinate, and assure the efficient performance of all management, operations, maintenance, and repair ... services" at the Premises. (J.A. 27). Succinctly stated, the contract between the United States and Meridian was comprehensive and allocated authority for maintenance of the Premises to Meridian.

May 12, 1993, was marked by torrential rains in Arlington. On the day of this deluge, while walking through the lobby of the Premises, Williams slipped and fell, thereby sustaining personal injury. Asserting that the United States negligently maintained the doors and floors of the Premises by permitting water to enter the Premises and accumulate on the floor and not warn of this condition, Williams instituted suit against the United States pursuant to the FTCA. The United States answered the complaint by denying liability on behalf of its own agents or employees, positing that it was shielded by the discretionary function exception of the FTCA. Additionally, the United States filed a third-party complaint against Meridian, contending that Meridian, as an independent contractor, was responsible for any alleged injury sustained by Williams.

Opining that the issue was not whether the floor was maintained properly, but what party was responsible for properly maintaining the floor, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the United States, concluding that maintaining the Premises in a safe condition was Meridian's responsibility. The district court apparently concluded that Meridian was an independent contractor, and thus liability for its alleged tortious conduct could not be attributed to the United States under the FTCA. In light of this ruling, the district court concluded that the third-party action was moot. Finally, the district court noted that if Williams wished to prosecute her claim, she was free to sue Meridian in state court. While the district court concluded that there was no basis for liability on behalf of the United States, it did not distinguish between liability of the United States via any alleged tortious conduct of Meridian as opposed to liability of the United States via its own agents or employees.

Williams appeals, raising essentially two issues. First, Williams contends that because Virginia law does not permit the duty to maintain premises in a safe condition to be delegated, the United States is liable for Meridian's alleged tortious conduct. Second, Williams contends that regardless of the lack of the United States' liability for Meridian's alleged tortious conduct, agents or employees of the United States are liable for her injuries.

The United States contests both contentions. First, the United States asserts that Meridian was an independent contractor liable for its own negligence and that Virginia law does not abrogate this conclusion. Second, the United States posits that its delegation of safety and maintenance measures to Meridian falls within the discretionary function exception of the FTCA, thereby precluding liability.

II.

Before turning to the merits, we address the procedural mode in which this case should be resolved. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the United States from the bench, but did not articulate whether it premised its ruling on Meridian's status as an independent contractor or because the discretionary function exception of the FTCA shielded the United States from liability or both. Instead, the district court summarily concluded that the FTCA provided no basis for liability against the United States. We reach two conclusions with respect to the district court's ruling. First, while we would ordinarily remand this case to the district court to resolve this ambiguity in the first instance, see Logue v. United States, 412 U.S. 521,...

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