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Le v. King

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

May 24, 2019

BAO XUYEN LE, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Tommy Le; HOAI “SUNNY” LE; DIEU HO; UYEN LE; KIM TUYET LE; QUOC NGUYEN; TAM NGUYEN; DUNG NGYUEN; and JEFFERSON HO, Plaintiffs,
v.
REVEREND DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. COUNTY; and KING COUNTY DEPUTY SHERIFF CESAR MOLINA, Defendants.

          ORDER

          THOMAS S. ZILLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER came before the Court on a motion for summary judgment brought by defendant Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. County (“King County”), docket no. 78. The Court previously ruled on King County's motion, see Minute Orders (docket nos. 143, 148, 163, & 178); Minutes (docket no. 167), and having considered all papers filed in support of, and in opposition to, the motion, as well as the oral arguments of counsel, the Court enters the following order explaining its decision to dismiss with prejudice plaintiffs' Third Cause of Action for outrage (intentional infliction of emotional distress).

         Background

         On June 14, 2017, Tommy Le was fatally shot by King County Deputy Sheriff Cesar Molina. The outrage claim asserted by Le's father, mother, grandmother, aunts, and siblings was not, however, premised on the shooting itself, but rather on events that transpired after Le's death. According to Bao Xuyen Le, one of Le's aunts, King County Detective Chris Johnson came to the family home during the afternoon of June 14, 2017, and told her, as well as Le's father and grandmother, that Le had been shot when he “attacked the deputies with a knife.” Bao Xuyen Le Decl. at ¶ 31 (docket no. 129). Detective Johnson appears to deny making this statement, indicating that he does not recall exactly what he said, but remembers giving a “general account” of events, including that deputies responded to the scene after receiving a call about “a man coming at some people with a knife, ” and that no knife was found. Johnson Decl. at ¶ 14 (docket no. 82).

         Two press releases about this incident were issued by the King County Sheriff's Office (“KCSO”), one on June 14, 2017, and the other on June 23, 2017. The first press release recounted that “[a] homeowner fired a warning shot at a man running at him with a sharp object in his hand, ” and “[w]hen Deputies responded to the scene, the suspect came at them as well.” Ex. 1 to Houck Decl. (docket no. 81-1). It further indicated that the suspect did not comply with orders to get on the ground and drop what he was holding, “continued to advance” after being tasered, and was struck “in the torso” by at least one bullet. Id. It did not identify the suspect. Id.

         The second press release contained a similar summary of events, stating that the suspect attempted to stab the 9-1-1 caller with a knife before deputies arrived and the suspect was shot, and identifying Tommy Le as the suspect. Ex. 1 to West Decl. (docket no. 86-1). The second press release disclosed that “[t]he object the suspect had in his hand at the time of the shooting was a pen, ” but it did not discuss the autopsy results, and instead indicated that “[t]he number of times the suspect was hit will come from the Medical Examiner's Office.” See id. Plaintiffs contend that, as a result of the press releases, and the KCSO's failure to correct alleged misstatements or omissions, they have been publicly shamed within the local Vietnamese community. See Bao Xuyen Le Decl. at ¶¶ 38-40 (docket no. 129).

         This litigation commenced in January 2018. On June 20, 2018, a Use of Force Review Board convened pursuant to Chapter 6 of the KCSO General Orders Manual (“GOM”). See Ex. 81 to Arnold Decl. (docket no. 109-17). The Use of Force Review Board, which was chaired by Undersheriff Scott A. Somers, answered the questions set forth in GOM 6.03.010(6), indicating inter alia that the use of force was “justified.” Id. Plaintiffs assert that the KCSO, and in particular Detective Johnson, withheld information from the Use of Force Review Board, as well as the public, in an attempt to cover up Deputy Molina's wrongful conduct and shield King County from liability, [1] and that such intentional acts rise to the level of outrage. King County contends that plaintiffs cannot, as a matter of law, prevail on their outrage claim. The Court agrees.

         Discussion

A. Standard for Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment may be granted if no genuine dispute of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To survive a motion for summary judgment, the adverse party must present “affirmative evidence, ” which “is to be believed” and from which all “justifiable inferences” are to be favorably drawn, id. at 255, 257, showing that a rational trier of fact could find for such party on matters as to which such party will bear the burden of proof at trial, see Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S 574, 587 (1986); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         B. Outrage

         In Washington, outrage is the same tort as intentional infliction of emotional distress. Kloepfel v. Bokor, 149 Wn.2d 192, 193 n.1, 66 P.3d 630 (2003). Under Washington law, the elements of outrage are: (i) extreme and outrageous conduct; (ii) intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress; and (iii) actual result to the plaintiff of severe emotional distress. Kloepfel, 149 Wn.2d at 195; Dombrosky v. Farmers Ins. Co. of Wash., 84 Wn.App. 245, 261, 928 P.2d 1127 (1996). The claim must be predicated on conduct that is “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.” Kloepfel, 149 Wn.2d at 196; Dombrosky, 84 Wn.App. at 261. The tort of outrage does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, or petty oppressions. Kloepfel, 149 Wn.2d at 196. Similarly, “a certain degree of rough language, unkindness, and lack of consideration” is not actionable as outrage. See id. The question of whether particular conduct rises to the requisite level of outrageousness is “ordinarily a question of fact for the jury.” Dombrosky, 84 Wn.App. at 261. The Court, however, may dismiss an outrage claim if reasonable minds could not differ as to the conclusion that the alleged behavior was not sufficiently extreme. Id. at 261-62.

         C. King County's Motion

         In moving for summary judgment, King County made three distinct arguments, namely that (i) King County has a qualified privilege with respect to statements made to the media, (ii) family members who were not present when Detective Johnson visited the family home have no cognizable claim based on the comments he allegedly ...


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