Court of Appeals Holds that Plaintiff Failed to Establish a Claim Based on Allegedly False Report Casting Doubt on His Eligibility for Disability Benefits

On April 17, 2014, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Grimes v. District of Columbia, No. 12-CV-218, slip op. (D.C. Apr. 17, 2014), in which it considered whether the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for (1) retaliation under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), and (3) civil conspiracy. Id. at 2-4.

The plaintiff’s complaint alleged the following: The plaintiff was awarded workers’ compensation disability benefits due to an injury sustained while working for the District of Columbia. Id. at 2. The plaintiff received benefits for a period of time but the District eventually refused to pay certain benefits. Id. at 2-3. “In support of its refusal, the District relied upon a report from [a private company]” that contained false accusations casting doubt on the plaintiff’s eligibility for disability benefits. Id. at 3. “[T]he District and [the private company] published the report and its false information to other individuals ‘in the hope of generating other negative information.'” Id.

The plaintiff’s complaint alleged claims for retaliation, IIED, and civil conspiracy. Id. at 3-4. The trial court dismissed all of the claims. Id. at 4. The plaintiff appealed. Id. at 2.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of all the plaintiff’s claims. Id. at 2, 18. With respect to the retaliation claim, the Court of Appeals stated that, to state a retaliation claim, the plaintiff was required to allege: “(1) that he engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) that his employer took [an] adverse personnel action against him; and (3) that a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action.” Id. at 11. The plaintiff “identifie[d] his protected activity as ‘the seeking of disability benefits in itself.'” Id. The Court of Appeals held that this allegation was insufficient as a matter of law because “[s]eeking workers’ compensation benefits is not a right ‘granted or protected’ by the DCHRA.” Id. at 12.

With respect to the IIED claim, the Court of Appeals stated that, “[t]o state an IIED claim, a plaintiff must plead facts showing (1) extreme and outrageous conduct on the part of the defendant which (2) intentionally or recklessly (3) causes the plaintiff severe emotional distress.” Id. at 14 (internal quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff’s “IIED claim rest[ed] on the allegation that [the private company] knowingly wrote a false report suggesting that [the plaintiff] was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits and published that report to others.” Id. at 15-16. The Court of Appeals stated that the plaintiff’s IIED claim failed as a matter of law because such conduct was not “extreme and outrageous” when considered in the context of a conflict between an employee and an employer. Id.

Finally, with respect to the civil conspiracy claim, the Court of Appeals explained that such a claim must be based on an underlying claim. Id. at 18. The plaintiff based his civil conspiracy claim on his claims for retaliation and IIED. Id. The Court of Appeals stated that “we have upheld the trial court’s dismissal of those claims” and “[t]herefore affirm the trial court’s dismissal of [the plaintiff’s] civil-conspiracy claim.” Id.

In addition to considering the above-discussed issues, the Court of Appeals considered certain threshold issues that are beyond the scope of this case note.