Injured Officer’s Only Remedy Against Employer Is Workers’ Compensation

Juan Johnson is a police officer for Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). While off duty on July 23, 2001, Johnson stepped outside his apartment building in southeast Washington D.C. to check the mail. Except for a police identification badge worn around his neck, Johnson was dressed in civilian clothes that gave no indication he was an MPD officer.

As Johnson was walking through the courtyard of his building, a stranger named Andre Clinton approached him and exclaimed he was being chased by “stick up boys.” Johnson helped Clinton get away from his pursuers by leading him through the locked back door of the apartment building. Once inside, Johnson told Clinton to wait downstairs while he went to his third-floor apartment to get him a glass of water.

When Johnson came out of his apartment a moment later, he was surprised to see Clinton running up the stairs towards him with police officers giving chase. Clinton was not running from robbers, but from the police, and Johnson had unwittingly aided his flight. Moments before, Clinton had sold drugs to an undercover officer and was now attempting to evade arrest. Officers monitoring Clinton’s escape mistook Johnson for an armed accomplice and broadcast a police radio report saying so.

Leading the chase was Jeffrey Bruce, an MPD narcotics officer. Bruce and his colleagues entered the apartment building through the unlocked front door, charged up the stairs with guns drawn, and ordered Johnson and Clinton to put up their hands. Johnson, who was standing just outside the apartment, immediately complied and tried to signal to Bruce that he was a fellow police officer.

When his signals failed, Johnson realized he could not easily resolve the case of mistaken identity and feared that Bruce might shoot him in the face or the chest. With hands still raised, Johnson turned away from the gun and fell through the open doorway of his apartment, landing face down on the floor. While Johnson was prone on the floor with his arms and legs spread, Bruce repeatedly kicked and stomped his groin and buttocks. Johnson protested, “What are you kicking me for? I’m the police, why are you kicking me, why are you stomping me?” When the MPD identification badge around Johnson’s neck finally came into view, Bruce stopped kicking him.

When Johnson’s injuries caused him to pass blood in his urine, he was placed on “performance of duty” paid leave under Washington D.C.’s Police and Firefighters Retirement and Disability Act (PFRDA)(the District’s equivalent to a workers’ compensation system). Johnson remained on paid leave for three years with a combination of physical and psychological injuries resulting from the encounter with Bruce. He has since resumed working as an MPD officer.

Johnson filed a lawsuit against Bruce, alleging that Bruce’s actions violated his constitutional rights. Johnson also filed a variety of claims against the District, including police brutality, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A federal court upheld the dismissal of Johnson’s claims against the District. The Court found that the Police and Firefighters Retirement and Disability Act was the “exclusive remedy against the District for police officers injured while performing their duties. The law does cover injuries intentionally caused by a coworker: From the perspective of the employer, such an injury is still ‘accidental’ and the employer is liable under the law, but not in court, so long as the injury arose out of and incurred in the course of employment. The PFRDA was Johnson’s exclusive source of remedies against the District, and the trial court was correct to enter judgment against him claims.”

The Court did allow Johnson’s claims against Bruce to proceed, finding that there was enough evidence that “a reasonable officer would not have repeatedly kicked a surrendering suspect in the groin.”

Johnson v. District of Columbia, 528 F.3d 969 (C.A.D.C. 2008).

This article appears in the September 2008 issue