DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.
Plaintiffs Becky Wesberry and Jim Wesberry (collectively, the "Wesberrys" or "Plaintiffs")
Following the filing of an Amended Complaint, the United States moved to dismiss. The government argues that the Wesberrys' claims are barred by sovereign immunity and that they fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In their opposition to the government's motion, the Wesberrys request leave to conduct jurisdictional discovery.
For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the discretionary function exception to the FTCA may bar the Plaintiffs' claims. Specifically, the Court finds that the National Park Service's decisions with regard to warning signs, handrails, and other safety features are grounded in public policy. However, at this time, the Court finds that it would be premature to determine whether any binding mandate governs the agency's decision-making process. Instead, the Court will allow Plaintiffs to conduct strictly limited jurisdictional discovery on that question. Discovery will be permitted only on whether a mandatory directive governed the National Park Service's acts or omissions, and, if such a directive existed, whether government employees followed its command. Thus, the Court will deny the government's motion, without prejudice, and permit the government to move for dismissal following jurisdictional discovery, if it chooses to do so.
A. Becky Wesberry's Injury
According to the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs Becky Wesberry and Jim Wesberry visited Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2014. See Am. Compl. ¶ 9, ECF No. 9. After spending time in the Ford's Theatre Museum, Plaintiffs exited the building through one of five doors leading to the street. Id. ¶¶ 11-13.
The Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint includes two Counts. Count I alleges that the negligence of the United States caused Becky Wesberry's injuries. Id. ¶¶ 24-28. Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that the United States breached its duty of care through a number of alleged acts or omissions, including:
Id. ¶ 26. Count II of the Amended Complaint seeks damages for Jim Wesberry's loss of consortium due to Becky Wesberry's injuries. Id. ¶¶ 29-31.
B. Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre is administered by the National Park Service as a historic site within the National Mall and Memorial Parks Area.
The Organic Act requires the National Park Service to manage the National Park System in a manner that conforms to the purpose of the parks, which is to "conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in the System units and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life... as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." 54 U.S.C. § 100101(a).
The Ford's Theatre facade includes five doors that exit from the lobby onto 10th Street, Northwest. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12-13; Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 7. Each exit steps down to the sidewalk at street level. See Am. Compl. ¶ 13; Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 7. Because the sidewalk below the exits is on a slope, the number of steps is not uniform from exit to exit. See Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 7; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 17 (noting slope). The first and second exits (counting from left to right) did not feature handrails, but the remaining three did include handrails. See Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 8.
From inside the lobby, each of the five exits is marked with a lighted "Exit" sign. Id. ¶ 11. According to Ms. Cucurullo, the use of signs and visual warnings at sites managed by the National Park Service is guided by the "longstanding [National Park Service] policy to minimally intrude upon the natural or historic setting in National Park System areas, and to avoid an unnecessary proliferation of signs, while striving to ensure the safety of park visitors." Id. ¶ 12 (quoting National Park Service Sign Manual at 1-1).
C. Procedural Background
Becky Wesberry and Jim Wesberry brought suit in this Court in June 2015. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. The Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on October 19, 2015. See generally Am. Compl. The Amended Complaint includes a negligence count against the United States brought pursuant to the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671, and a claim for loss of consortium. See id. ¶¶ 1, 24-31. The United States moves to dismiss. See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss ("Def.'s Mot."), ECF No. 12. Specifically, the government argues that Plaintiffs' claims are barred by sovereign immunity, see Def.'s Mem. P. & A. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem.") at 7-13, ECF No. 12, and that the Amended Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, see id. at 13. The Wesberrys oppose the motion, and also request permission to conduct jurisdictional discovery.
III. LEGAL STANDARD
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides for the dismissal of an action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and the law presumes that "a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction." Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466, 489, 124 S.Ct. 2686, 159 L.Ed.2d 548 (2004) (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 128 L.Ed.2d 391 (1994)); see also Gen. Motors Corp. v. EPA, 363 F.3d 442, 448 (D.C.Cir.2004) ("As a court of limited jurisdiction, we begin, and end, with an examination of our jurisdiction."). It is the plaintiff's burden to
The United States moves to dismiss the Complaint on two grounds. First, the government argues that the Court should dismiss the Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiffs' claims fall within the discretionary function exception to the FTCA and are therefore barred by sovereign immunity. See Def.'s Mem. at 7-13. Second, the government argues that the Court should dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because the Amended Complaint does not include "particularized allegations" showing how the allegedly negligent conditions proximately caused Becky Wesberry's fall. Id. at 13. The government also objects to Plaintiffs' purported reliance on "nationally recognized safety standards" to prove the government's negligence. Id. The Court must begin its analysis by determining whether it has jurisdiction. Because the Court will permit limited jurisdictional discovery to determine whether a mandatory directive governed the National Park Service's decisions, the Court finds that it would be premature to decide whether the discretionary function exception applies to this case. Therefore, the Court will deny the government's motion to dismiss, without prejudice. Because the Court cannot resolve the discretionary function analysis at this time, it cannot move past the sovereign immunity analysis to the merits of the case.
A. The Discretionary Function Exception
The United States argues that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' Complaint because the claims fall under the discretionary function exception to the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity. The Court finds that the National Park Service's decisions were grounded in public policy considerations, including concerns about aesthetics and historical preservation. At this time, the Court also finds that Plaintiffs have failed to prove that a mandatory rule or policy constrained the agency's decision-making. However, because the Court will permit limited jurisdictional discovery on that point, the Court determines that it would be premature to find that the discretionary function exception bars Plaintiffs' claims. The government may raise the exception again, following the conclusion of jurisdictional discovery.
Sovereign immunity shields the federal government and its agencies from suit and is "jurisdictional in nature." Am. Road & Transp. Builders Ass'n v. EPA, 865 F.Supp.2d 72, 79 (D.D.C.2012) (quoting FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475, 114 S.Ct. 996, 127 L.Ed.2d 308 (1994)) (other citations omitted). The government may waive immunity, but such a waiver "must be unequivocally expressed in statutory text, and will not be implied." Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 192, 116 S.Ct. 2092, 135 L.Ed.2d 486 (1996) (citations omitted). "If sovereign immunity has not been waived, a claim is subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction." Clayton v. District of Columbia, 931 F.Supp.2d 192, 200 (D.D.C.2013). The plaintiff bears the burden "of establishing
The FTCA contains a limited waiver of sovereign immunity that allows the United States to be sued for the negligent acts or omissions of its employees who are acting within the scope of their employment. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1); see also United States v. Orleans, 425 U.S. 807, 813, 96 S.Ct. 1971, 48 L.Ed.2d 390 (1976). Specifically, the FTCA waives sovereign immunity based on an "injury ... caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment ... if a private person would be liable to the claimant." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1).
A number of exceptions limit the scope of the FTCA, however. The discretionary function exception is one such exclusion from the FTCA's general jurisdictional grant and waiver of sovereign immunity. See Sloan v. U.S. Dep't of Hous. & Urban Dev., 236 F.3d 756, 759 (D.C.Cir. 2011). Under this exception, the United States expressly retains its immunity for "any claim ... based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a). The discretionary function exception reflects Congress's "desire to prevent judicial second-guessing" of certain decisions. Berkovitz v. United States, 486 U.S. 531, 536-37, 108 S.Ct. 1954, 100 L.Ed.2d 531 (1954) (quoting United States v. Varig Airlines, 467 U.S. 797, 814, 104 S.Ct. 2755, 81 L.Ed.2d 660 (1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Because the purpose of the exception is to shield discretionary policy decisions from liability, the exception applies even when an employee's alleged acts are negligent. See United States v. Gaubert, 499 U.S. 315, 323, 111 S.Ct. 1267, 113 L.Ed.2d 335 (1991) (examining Varig Airlines and explaining that actions taken in furtherance of the relevant discretionary decision in that case were protected, "even if those particular actions were negligent"). "If the discretionary function exception applies, the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the case." Sloan, 236 F.3d at 759 (citing Cope v. Scott, 45 F.3d 445, 448 (D.C.Cir. 1995)).
In United States v. Gaubert, the Supreme Court created a two-step test to determine if the discretionary function exception applies to a government action. 499 U.S. 315, 111 S.Ct. 1267, 113 L.Ed.2d 335 (1991). First, the exception "covers only acts that are discretionary in nature" and "`involv[e] an element of judgment or choice.'" Id. at 322, 111 S.Ct. 1267 (quoting Berkovitz, 486 U.S. at 536, 108 S.Ct. 1954). The exception will not apply where a "federal statute, regulation or policy specifically prescribes a course of action for an employee to follow." Id. In the case of a specific prescription, "no discretion is employed and the only remaining inquiry ... is whether the employee did, or did not, do what was prescribed by the applicable statute, regulation, or policy." Daisley v. Riggs Bank, N.A., 372 F.Supp.2d 61, 82 (D.D.C.2005) (quoting Macharia v. United States, 238 F.Supp.2d 13, 22 (D.D.C.2002)).
Second, even if "the challenged conduct involves an element of judgment," that judgment must be "of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield." Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 322-23, 111 S.Ct. 1267 (quoting Berkovitz, 486 U.S. at 536, 108 S.Ct. 1954). The exception is intended to "prevent judicial
1. Is the Decision Grounded in Policy?
The Court will begin its analysis with the second prong of the Gaubert test, which asks whether the decision is the kind intended to be protected by the discretionary function exception. The crucial question is "whether the type of decision being challenged is grounded in social, economic, or political policy." Macharia v. United States, 334 F.3d 61, 67 (D.C.Cir. 2003) (quoting Cope, 45 F.3d at 449). This analysis is "admittedly difficult," in some cases, because "nearly every government action is, at least to some extent," linked to questions of public policy. Cope, 45 F.3d at 448 (citing Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 336, 111 S.Ct. 1267 (Scalia, J., concurring)). Still, the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit have provided a number of guiding principles. For example, "garden-variety" decisions, such as the everyday, split-second choices a government employee makes while operating a vehicle, are not protected by the exception. See Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 332, 111 S.Ct. 1267. Choice alone is not enough. Instead, the exception only protects decisions that are "fraught with ... public policy considerations," Sami v. United States, 617 F.2d 755, 767 (D.C.Cir. 1979), abrogated on other grounds by Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692, 124 S.Ct. 2739, 159 L.Ed.2d 718 (2004), or "grounded in the policy of the regulatory regime." Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 325, 111 S.Ct. 1267. Furthermore, essentially all government decisions implicate fiscal concerns to varying degrees. See Cope, 45 F.3d at 449 (citing ARA Leisure Servs. v. United States, 831 F.2d 193, 196 (9th Cir. 1987)). But the "mere presence of choice — even if that choice involves whether money should be spent — does not trigger the exception." Id. Shielding garden-variety decisions and every choice with budgetary implications, however slight, would threaten to "swallow the FTCA's sweeping waiver of sovereign immunity." Id.
The crucial question in this case is whether the National Park Service's decision to use certain safety measures and warnings, but not others, is the type of decision that "implicate[s] social, economic, or political policies." Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 332, 111 S.Ct. 1267. To answer this question, the parties each discuss Cope v. Scott, the leading case in this jurisdiction. 45 F.3d 445 (D.C.Cir.1995). In Cope, the D.C. Circuit considered allegations that the National Park Service was negligent in its decisions related to Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park. Id. Cope, the plaintiff, was injured in a car accident and claimed that the government failed to maintain the road properly and to place adequate warning signs. Id. at 450. The court found that claims related to the management, maintenance, and design of the road, including suggestions that the National Park Service should have reduced the traffic load on Beach Drive, used a different material when constructing the road, repaved the curve entirely, or milled the surface of the curve to create grooves, were barred by the discretionary function exception.
Crucially, however, the court did not hold that aesthetic considerations can never implicate public policy in a way that triggers the discretionary function exception. Cope acknowledged that "in certain circumstances, decisions will be exempt under the FTCA because they involve difficult policy judgments balancing the preservation of the environment against the blight of excess signs." Id. The decision turned on the fact that Beach Drive was simply "a commuter route through an urban park," not "the Grand Canyon's Rim Drive, nor Shenandoah's Skyline Drive." Id. The court distinguished Cope from other cases shielding the failure to post warning signs, because those "decisions were based on a reasonable desire to protect the experience of the park visitor." Id. (first citing Bowman v. United States, 820 F.2d 1393, 1395 (4th Cir.1987) (failure to place guardrail along the Blue Ridge Parkway may have implicated policy considerations such as protecting scenic vista); and then citing Zumwalt v. United States, 928 F.2d 951, 955 (10th Cir.1991) (decision not to place warning signs was part of policy decision to protect the wilderness experience in the park)). If Beach Drive were more like Rim Drive — and less like Interstate 95 — aesthetic considerations may have been enough to trigger the discretionary function exception. In a similar vein, other circuits have repeatedly held that decisions based on aesthetic considerations may be protected by the discretionary function exception. See, e.g., Shansky v. United States, 164 F.3d 688, 693 (1st Cir.1999); Chantal v. United States, 104 F.3d 207, 212-13 (8th Cir.1997); Kiehn v. United States, 984 F.2d 1100, 1104-05 (10th Cir.1993).
Following Cope, district courts in this Circuit have found that legitimate aesthetic consideration are sufficient to shield decisions under the discretionary function exception. For instance, in Merry v. National Park Service, the court considered a negligence claim brought by a patron of Ford's Theatre who fell down a flight of steps inside the building. 985 F.Supp.2d 90 (D.D.C.2013). The court, relying on a declaration filed by Ms. Cucurullo, found that National Park Service policy "require[d] that a natural or historical site be maintained with minimal intrusion." Id. at 95. Thus, the court held that the National Park Service's decision to use historic lighting and to minimize signage was shielded by the discretionary function exception. Id.
This case is closer to Merry than Hayes. The National Park Service's management of Ford's Theatre, including its decisions about safety features and warnings, implicates legitimate aesthetic and cultural preservation concerns. Ford's Theatre is an important historical site, which is now managed to explore the legacy of President Lincoln and his assassination. See Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 4; see also Merry, 985 F.Supp.2d at 95. The Organic Act instructs the National Park Service to manage the National Park System in a manner that will "conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life ... and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life... as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." 54 U.S.C. § 100101(a). Other National Park Service guidelines state that park superintendents must "balance public recreation and safety with preservation of the protected natural, historic, or cultural setting." See Cucurullo Decl. Ex. B at 2 (National Park Service Director's Order 50C); see also Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 6 (quoting a portion of Order 50C). Ms. Cucurullo declares that Ford's Theatre is managed in a manner consistent with those objectives. See Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 5.
The goal of preserving Ford's Theatre and leaving it unimpaired for future generations requires the National Park Service to balance aesthetic goals with public safety and other concerns. Ford's Theatre, the site of one of the critical moments in the history of the republic, is not like the commuter road at issue in Cope. The appearance of the Theatre, both inside and out, implicates important preservation concerns. The result might be different if the government had re-opened Ford's Theatre only as a venue for plays, with no connection to President Lincoln, or had hired a contemporary architect to completely renovate the structure in a modern style. Instead, however, the historical significance of Ford's Theatre matches the visual majesty of the Grand Canyon. See Cope, 45 F.3d at 451. Decisions of the National Park Service that implicate aesthetic or preservation concerns at Ford's Theatre should be given the same deference.
The outcome does not rely on the National Park Service maintaining Ford's Theatre in the exact condition it was in on the night of President Lincoln's assassination. Plaintiffs argue that the "government changed the historic nature of Ford's Theatre by converting windows into exits, installing railings, and installing some signs at the exit doors." Pls.' Opp'n at 14. Plaintiffs' argument is misplaced. The discretionary function exception protects decisions that are grounded in public policy. Here, the decisions in question relate to balancing aesthetic and preservation concerns with public safety. The exception is not limited to historic, cultural, or natural sites maintained in their pristine state. For instance, the government points to Brotman v. United States, where the court found that the discretionary function exception applied to preservation concerns implicated by a 1980s improvement to stairs inside the pedestal of the Statute of Liberty. 111 F.Supp.2d 418 (S.D.N.Y.2000). The court concluded that decisions involved in designing lighting and posting warning signs "involved the weighing of safety concerns as compared with aesthetic ones and the impact of any changes on the historical accuracy of the rehabilitation." Id. at 426. That type of decision "is not only grounded in policy concerns but, indeed, `typifies the kind of governmental decisions which Congress intended to shield from judicial second-guessing.'" Id. (quoting Chantal, 104 F.3d at 212). Similarly, in Shansky, the First Circuit found that changes made to a historical site in the 1960s were protected by the discretionary function exception, even though they altered the site's original character in some ways. See 164 F.3d at 690, 693-94.
Plaintiffs, analogizing to the road signs in Cope, also argue that the government cannot claim that "its lack of warning signs involves discretionary decisions since [it] already has some signs located at the exits." Pls.' Opp'n at 11-12. Again, in this case, making a choice to install some exit signs, but not other warnings, is the type of decision protected by the discretionary function exception. Cope turned on the fact that Beach Drive was a commuter road, not a parkway managed to connect drivers to the natural world. See Cope, 45 F.3d at 452. The presence of many other signs was evidence of that reality, but Cope does not stand for the proposition that the presence of some signage means the agency cannot exercise discretion when avoiding the overuse of other signs. Courts have held that where the discretionary function exception applies, it "protects both the decision whether to warn and decisions regarding the scope and content of such warnings." SR.P. ex rel. Abunabba v. United States, 676 F.3d 329, 337 (3d Cir. 2012). On a related note, a "commitment to safety in
Plaintiffs also rely on Boyd v. United States, which is cited by Cope, to argue that the failure to warn Becky Wesberry is not protected by the discretionary function exception. 881 F.2d 895 (10th Cir.1989). Plaintiffs' reliance on Boyd is inapposite. In Boyd, the Tenth Circuit held that, once the government decided to allow swimmers in a lake, the "alleged failure to warn swimmers of dangerous conditions ... does not implicate any social, economic, or policy judgments." Id. at 898. The government argued that its decision to allow swimming was discretionary, and it therefore had no obligation to post warnings. Id. at 897-98. The court rejected that position because the failure to warn was a separate decision, which was unrelated to any policy considerations. Id. Boyd did not, however, stand for the proposition that a failure to warn can never be protected by the discretionary function exception, nor did the case implicate questions of aesthetic or historical values. Notably, in a subsequent case, Kiehn v. United States, the Tenth Circuit held that the National Park Service considered questions of public policy when deciding whether or not to post warning signs about the dangers posted at Dinosaur National Monument. 984 F.2d 1100 (10th Cir.1993). This case, which implicates questions of aesthetic values and preservation at a unique historical site, is far closer to Kiehn than Boyd.
Finally, Plaintiffs argue that "the question is not whether the Park Service should have acted but whether it acted reasonably." Pls.' Opp'n at 13. Relying on brief, single quotations found in Boyd and Hayes, Plaintiffs suggest that the discretionary function exception does not apply because the National Park Service acted unreasonably. See id. at 12-14. This standard would completely eviscerate the discretionary function exception and must be rejected. By definition, FTCA claims must allege "the negligent or wrongful act or omission" of a government employee. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). The discretionary function exception bars some of those negligence claims in order to protect policy decisions from "judicial second-guessing." Berkovitz, 486 U.S. at 536-37, 108 S.Ct. 1954 (quoting Varig Airlines, 467 U.S. at 814, 104 S.Ct. 2755). A rule that only allowed the exception to protect reasonable decisions would completely short circuit the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity and its exceptions. Because of the purpose of the discretionary function exception, it applies even when an employee's alleged acts are negligent. See Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 323, 111 S.Ct. 1267; see also Varig Airlines, 467 U.S. at 820, 104 S.Ct. 2755.
For these reasons, the Court finds that the National Park Service's decisions with regard to signage and other safety features at Ford's Theatre require the agency to balance aesthetic and preservation concerns against the risks posed to patrons. Those decisions implicate policy considerations and constitute the type of discretionary decision-making that the discretionary function exception is intended to protect. Thus, the Court finds that the second Gaubert prong is satisfied in this case.
2. Does a Mandatory Policy Apply?
Resolving the second Gaubert prong in the government's favor does not fully resolve the issue, however. Under the first prong, the United States could still be liable if "the injury resulted from a government employee's failure to follow a specific,
Plaintiffs' argument that a binding directive governed the agency's decision-making is admittedly thin. At best, the Amended Complaint alleges that "the presence of handrails on all but [one] exit indicates that the stairs were designed with handrails." Am. Compl. ¶ 15. In their opposition to the government's motion, Plaintiffs briefly elaborate that, "[g]iven the presence of railings on some of the exits, but not others, the reasonable inference is that the Park Service had a policy in place to install railings at exits with steps." Pls.' Opp'n at 7. Plaintiffs do not, however, point to any specific statute, regulation, or policy that might limit the agency's discretion.
In contrast, the United States argues that "the [National Park Service] is under no mandate to install handrails, redesign stairs, install slip-resistant features, or otherwise conform to any mandatory safety standard." Def.'s Mem. at 10. Similarly, the government argues that questions about lighting, warnings, and safety features "are not controlled by any mandatory policy, regulation, or rule." Id. In support of its position, the government relies on its declarant, who states that no "law, regulation, or policy mandates how the [National Park Service] has designed or maintained the signage in Ford's Theatre." Cucurullo Decl. ¶ 13. Ms. Cucurullo also declares that the National Park Service "vests decision-making authority," including "public safety-related decisions," in park superintendents, and that agency polices provide that "the means by which public safety concerns are to be met is left to the discretion of the superintendents and other decision makers at the park level." Id. ¶ 6.
Under the first prong of Gaubert, the discretionary function exception does not apply if a "federal statute, regulation or policy specifically prescribes a course of action for an employee to follow." Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 322, 111 S.Ct. 1267 (emphasis added) (quoting Berkovitz, 486 U.S. at 536, 108 S.Ct. 1954). The D.C. Circuit has repeated that the ultimate question is whether "a specific directive exists." Cope, 45 F.3d at 448 (emphasis added). Here, Plaintiffs' argument that the existence of handrails on some exits, but not others, gives rise to a "reasonable inference" that the National Park Service had a policy requiring handrails, is nowhere near proof of a specific directive. Allowing Plaintiffs to rely on a mere "inference," see Pls.' Opp'n at 7, instead of a "federal statute, regulation or policy [that] specifically prescribes a course of action," Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 322, 111 S.Ct. 1267 (emphasis added) (quoting Berkovitz, 486 U.S. at 536, 108 S.Ct. 1954), would seriously undermine prong one of the Gaubert test.
Although Plaintiffs have not identified any binding regulation or policy at this time, they do seek jurisdictional discovery to determine "whether there was a Park Service policy requiring railings to be installed on stairs." Pls.' Opp'n at 4. For the reasons explained below, and in light of this Circuit's liberal approach to jurisdictional discovery in the FTCA context, the Court finds that it would be premature to resolve the first Gaubert prong without giving Plaintiffs an opportunity to conduct limited, jurisdictional discovery.
B. Request for Jurisdictional Discovery
The Wesberrys argue that they should "have the opportunity to conduct discovery to rebut the government's arguments." Pls.' Opp'n at 4. Specifically, Plaintiffs argue that they should be permitted to conduct discovery on:
Id. at 4. Plaintiffs also draw attention to the changes made to the building since President Lincoln's assassination, including the fact that some of the existing exits were originally windows and that railings were added to some doors, but not others, after the Park Service's substantial restoration in the 1960s. Id. at 5-6; see also Pls.' Opp'n Ex. 1 at 3 (including a photograph of Ford's Theatre taken in the 1930s). In response, the United States argues that "jurisdictional discovery would not be meaningful to the Court's jurisdictional inquiry." Def.'s Reply at 1-2. In light of this Circuit's liberal approach to jurisdictional discovery in the context of exceptions to the FTCA, the Court will permit closely cabined jurisdictional discovery for the reasons explained below.
"This Circuit's standard for permitting jurisdictional discovery is quite liberal." Diamond Chem. Co., Inc. v. Atofina Chems., Inc., 268 F.Supp.2d 1, 15 (D.D.C. 2003). The D.C. Circuit has stated that "if a party demonstrates that it can supplement its jurisdictional allegations through discovery, then jurisdictional discovery is justified." GTE New Media Servs., Inc. v. BellSouth Corp., 199 F.3d 1343, 1351 (D.C.Cir.2000). "The district court retains considerable latitude in devising the procedures it will follow to ferret out the facts pertinent to jurisdiction," but, "[i]n order to avoid burdening a sovereign that proves to be immune from suit ... jurisdictional discovery should be carefully controlled and limited." Phoenix Consulting Inc. v. Republic of Angola, 216 F.3d 36, 40 (D.C.Cir.2000) (citations omitted) (quoting Prakash v. Am. Univ., 727 F.2d 1174, 1179-80 (D.C.Cir.1984) (internal quotation marks omitted)).
In the FTCA context, courts in this Circuit frequently grant jurisdictional discovery where plaintiffs have challenged the application of exceptions to the FTCA. See, e.g., Ignatiev, 238 F.3d at 467 (reversing the district court's decision to prohibit discovery regarding whether non-public, mandatory guidelines existed); Loughlin, 393 F.3d at 166-68 (finding that the district court erred in suggesting that jurisdictional discovery is limited to the first prong of the discretionary function exception test); Davis v. United States, No. 16-0135, 196 F.Supp.3d 106, 2016 WL 3951057, at *10 (D.D.C. July 20, 2016) (permitting limited jurisdictional discovery); Sledge v. United States, 723 F.Supp.2d 87, 94-95 (D.D.C.2010) (same); Singh, 2007 WL 1521050, at *6 (same). In the FTCA context, in fact, the D.C. Circuit has "recognized that where `facts [are] necessary to establish jurisdiction,' plaintiffs must be afforded the opportunity for discovery of [such] facts ... prior to' the granting of a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction." Loughlin, 393
The Court finds that limited discovery is warranted in this case. In order to determine whether the discretionary function exception applies to Plaintiffs' FTCA claim, the Court must consider factual matters outside the Amended Complaint. Plaintiffs have done little to suggest that a mandatory directive governed the National Park Service's decisions, but they have sought leave to conduct discovery on "whether there was a Park Service policy requiring railings to be installed on stairs." Pls.' Opp'n at 4. The Court will follow the Circuit's instruction that "plaintiffs must be afforded the opportunity for discovery" when facts are necessary to establish jurisdiction in this context. Loughlin, 393 F.3d at 167.
As explained above, Plaintiffs' argue that "the presence of railings on some of the exits, but not others" gives rise to "the reasonable inference is that the Park Service had a policy in place to install railings."
Of course, any discovery conducted by the Wesberrys at this time must be strictly limited to jurisdictional issues.
For example, several issues listed in Plaintiffs request for discovery are irrelevant to the threshold jurisdictional question at issue here. First, Plaintiffs argue that they should be allowed to conduct discovery on "the reasons railings were installed on some exits and not others." Pls.' Opp'n at 4. Second, Plaintiffs seek to conduct discovery on "the reasons warning signs were not installed on exits leading to steps without railings." Id. Both topics are irrelevant to whether the discretionary function exception applies to this case. As previously explained, the application of the discretionary function exception does not turn on "what the decisionmaker was thinking, but whether the type of decision being challenged is grounded in social, economic, or political policy." Cope, 45 F.3d at 449 (citing Gaubert, 499 U.S. at 325, 111 S.Ct. 1267). In other words, the government is not required to show that the relevant decisionmakers actually considered the relevant policy ramifications. See Macharia v. United States, 334 F.3d 61, 67 (D.C.Cir.2003); see also Shansky v. United States, 164 F.3d 688, 692 (1st Cir.1999) ("It is therefore of no practical consequence that Park Service officials failed to mull particular safety issues...."); Gotha v. United States, 115 F.3d 176, 180 (3d Cir. 1997) ("The test is not whether the government actually considered each possible alternative in the universe of options, but whether the conduct was of the type associated with the exercise of official discretion." (quoting Smith v. Johns-Manville Corp., 795 F.2d 301, 308-09 (3d Cir.1986))); Kiehn v. United States, 984 F.2d 1100, 1105 (10th Cir.1993) (explaining that "it is unnecessary for government employees to make an actual `conscious decision' regarding policy factors" for the discretionary function exception to apply).
The "reasons" for the National Park Service's decisions are therefore irrelevant, and no discovery will be permitted on those issues. The only issues subject to discovery at this time are whether a mandatory directive governed the National Park Service's actions with regard to the purportedly negligent conditions at Ford's Theatre and whether the agency or its employees violated that directive. Following the completion of jurisdictional discovery, the United States may renew its motion to dismiss.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 12) is