E-Alert Case Updates
United States District Court for the District of Columbia Denies Healthcare Provider’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim After Stealing Valuables From Elderly Couple
David E. Mann & Vera D. Mann v. Constant Ottro Bahi, et al.
Drs. David E. Mann (“David”) and Vera D. Mann (“Vera”) are an older married couple, who have lived in the District of Columbia for 30 years. As of May 2016, they were both 91 years old. In February 2015, David had emergency surgery and spent several weeks in intensive care. Upon returning home, Vera was unable to provide the nursing care that David needed, so they looked to hire medical professionals who could provide care at their home.
The Manns’ son hired two primary caregivers for Vera and David through a referral service, known as Capital City Nurses Registry. The two caregivers were Constant Ottro Bahi and Marie Poteman. Around late March 2015, Bahi worked as the Manns’ daytime caregiver, and Poteman worked as the nighttime caregiver. When Bahi or Poteman were unavailable, Capital City Nurses Registry provided substitute caregivers, one of whom was Mariatu Sesay. The Manns were usually alone in their home with Bahi, Poteman, or Sesay.
Over the next few months, the Manns realized that several items had gone missing from their home, and observed Bahi, Poteman, and Sesay acting very suspiciously. At one point, once the Manns suspected the thefts, David “nailed boards across some of the kitchen cupboards.” In response, Poteman stopped speaking to David, and then stopped coming to work entirely a few days later. There was also an instance on August 23, 2015, where Vera and Sesay were sitting in a room that displayed a silver platter. Vera stepped out for a moment, and upon her return, the platter was gone. Vera reported the theft to Capital City Nurses Registry, but the company took no action.
Most importantly, Vera became so concerned with Bahi roaming through locked areas of their house, that she packed her most valuable possessions in boxes and moved them to her bedroom, which she believed was secure behind additional locked entrances. Around September 7 or 8, Vera woke around 2 a.m. to find Bahi in her bedroom, “rummaging through the cartons of her belongings,” and ultimately removing valuables, such as jewelry.
Following this incident, Vera confronted Bahi, but he never confirmed nor denied taking the items. About ten (10) days after this encounter, the Manns discovered a locked closet was forced open, and the contents were ransacked. Several valuable fur coats were missing, along with sterling silver objects. The Manns finally called the police. Bahi did not show up to work after that.
Vera and David filed this lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court in April 2016, with an Amended Complaint filed in May 2016. The defendants removed the suit to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The complaint alleged twelve (12) counts, five (5) of which were against Bahi: (1) conversion; (2) trespass to chattels; (3) trespass; (4) intrusion upon seclusion; and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”). Bahi brought a motion to dismiss regarding Count Five, arguing that even if the facts are true, his conduct did not amount to IIED.
In order for an IIED claim to survive, “a plaintiff must show (1) extreme and outrageous conduct on the part of the defendant which (2) intentionally or recklessly (3) causes the plaintiff severe emotional distress. Armstrong v. Thompson, 80 A.3d 177, 189 (D.C. 2013). The conduct must be “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Id.
Bahi claimed that property-related torts—such as those argued here—can never rise to the level of justifying an IIED claim. He also argued that the Manns have failed to allege a sufficient injury because neither David nor Vera stated that they have suffered physical harm as a result of distress.
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia found that D.C. law has recognized instances where harm to property gave rise to an IIED claim. This is consistent with the overall approach to IIED claims—the core inquiry is the outrageousness of the conduct and the distress it causes, rather than any specific type of conduct.
In the case at bar, reasonable jurors could believe that Bahi’s conduct—especially when viewed in the light of his relationship with the Manns—was outrageous and extreme. Bahi did have permission to enter the Manns’ home, but that permission was implicitly conditioned on his agreement to not enter the locked spaces of their home and to not steal from the Manns. Additionally, Bahi was in a particular position of trust since he was responsible for giving medical care to David, whom Bahi knew was unable to care for himself. Encountering an intruder in their bedroom at night would be terrifying, but it would be particularly horrifying for someone in Vera’s situation. Therefore, reasonable jurors would find that, in the context of a nurse hired to take care of a frail and vulnerable elderly couple, breaking into their bedroom at night, and stealing is beyond the bounds of decency in a civilized society.
The court also held that D.C. law does not require that a plaintiff suffer physical harm as a result of his or her emotional distress. The D.C. Court of Appeals has addressed this, stating: “[o]ur cases have long recognized that a plaintiff may recover damages for mental suffering unaccompanied by physical injury as part of his recovery for an intentional tort.” Parker v. Stein, 557 A.2d 1319, 1322–23 (D.C. 1989). Therefore, David and Vera have alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Whether the events took place as the Manns alleged, and whether Bahi’s conduct is sufficiently outrageous for the Manns to prevail on the claim of IIED, are questions of fact to be decided by a jury. Thus, Bahi’s motion to dismiss was denied.
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