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Rinaldi v. Wilson

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


March 31, 1999

JOHN RINALDI,
PLAINTIFF,
V.
JAMES WILSON, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jerome B. Simandle U.S. District Judge

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

SIMANDLE, District Judge

This matter is before the court on the motions of defendants William Kleinow, Elkenney B. Pullen and the Township of Little Egg Harbor ("the Township") for summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(b). Plaintiff, John Rinaldi, alleges that defendant James Wilson, a police officer employed by the Township, used excessive force against him during a traffic stop on January 30, 1995. *fn1 Rinaldi further alleges that Kleinow, a Captain in the Township police department, witnessed the alleged beating without intervening on his behalf, and that Pullen (then Chief of the Township police department) and the Township failed to properly train Wilson in the appropriate use of force and/or were aware of and tolerated Wilson's propensity to use excessive force in making arrests. Rinaldi claims that all of the defendants are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 through 12-3.

Because the court finds that Rinaldi has not come forward with sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury could find that Kleinow was present at the scene of the traffic stop while the alleged beating was taking place, the court grants Kleinow's motion for summary judgment. Because the court finds that Rinaldi has not come forward with any evidence that Pullen was personally involved in the constitutional violations allegedly committed by Wilson, the court grants Pullen's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claims against him in his individual capacity and dismisses Rinaldi's claims against him in his official capacity as duplicative of those against the Township. However, because the court finds that Rinaldi has adduced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Pullen and the Township failed to adequately train Wilson in the appropriate use of force and/or that Pullen and the Township knew of and tolerated Wilson's propensity to use excessive force during arrests, the court denies the Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's § 1983 claim against the Township. Finally, because the court finds that Rinaldi filed a timely notice of claim under the Tort Claims Act, the court denies the Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claim under the Tort Claims Act.

BACKGROUND

On February 6, 1997, Rinaldi commenced this action by filing an Amended Complaint against Wilson, Kleinow, Pullen and the Township. In the Amended Complaint, Rinaldi alleges that he was driving his vehicle on Mathistown Road in the Township when he was pulled over by Wilson. (Amended Complaint at ¶ 11.) Rinaldi alleges that Wilson was verbally abusive and physically assaulted him without provocation or justification. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Rinaldi also alleges that Kleinow arrived at the scene of the traffic stop and joined in Wilson's abusive behavior. (Id. at 13.) Rinaldi further alleges the abuse continued after he was transported to the police station by Wilson. (Id. at ¶¶ 14-15.) Rinaldi claims that the actions of Wilson and Kleinow "were entirely unjustified and constituted an unreasonable and excessive use of force." (Id. at ¶ 16.)

In the First Count of the Amended Complaint, Rinaldi alleges that Wilson and Kleinow deprived him of various constitutional rights and protections and caused him personal injury under color of state law in violation of § 1983. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-19.) In the Second Count, Rinaldi alleges that Wilson and Kleinow "maliciously, negligently and recklessly used excessive and unreasonable force" against him in violation of his constitutional rights and § 1983. (Id. at ¶ 20-22.) In the Third Count of the Complaint, Rinaldi alleges that Pullen and the Township are liable for the actions of Wilson and Kleinow under § 1983 due to their failure to properly "instruct, supervise, control and discipline" Wilson and Kleinow. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-28.) In the Fourth Count, Rinaldi claims that the defendants are liable under the Tort Claims Act. (Id. at ¶¶ 29-34.) In the Fifth Count, Rinaldi alleges that he suffered damages as a result of the "grossly reckless, negligent or intentional acts" of Pullen and the Township. (Id. at ¶¶ 35-37.)

In support of his claims, Rinaldi relies upon his own testimony and that of fact witnesses Bruce Knipper and Willard Dolby. Knipper, who claims to have witnessed the entire altercation between Wilson and Rinaldi, testified at his deposition that Wilson instigated the scuffle by opening the door of Rinaldi's car and pulling Rinaldi from the car to the ground, where he proceeded to handcuff Rinaldi, punch him in the ribs, and use his nightstick to lift Rinaldi from the ground and bend him over the trunk of the car. (Knipper N.T. at 54:23 - 61:22.)

Knipper also testified that a second police officer arrived at the scene after the scuffle between Wilson and Rinaldi had ended. (Knipper N.T. at 63:13 - 64:1.) *fn2 Dolby did not see the alleged beating, but claims to have seen three police cars at the scene. (Dolby N.T. at 8:12-19.)

Rinaldi also relies upon certain internal affairs files obtained during discovery that relate to citizen complaints of excessive force by Township police officers between 1991 and 1995, including two prior complaints of excessive force against Wilson in the nine months preceding the January 30, 1995 incident about which Rinaldi complains, during Wilson's first year on the Township police force, one of which involved the alleged wielding of a nightstick during a traffic stop. (See Eliades Aff., Ex. A and F.) Upon investigation by the internal affairs department of the police department, neither complaint against Wilson was sustained, and neither resulted in discipline.

Finally, Rinaldi also relies upon the expert testimony of Francis R. Murphy, who produced an expert report dated November 4, 1997 (Cipriani Aff., Ex. K) and a supplemental expert report dated January 30, 1999. (Eliades Aff., Ex. M.)

In his original expert report, Murphy offers his opinion that Pullen and the Township failed to adequately train Wilson in the appropriate use of force in effectuating an arrest. In his supplemental expert report, Murphy offers his opinion that Pullen and the Township knew about and tolerated Wilson's alleged propensity to use excessive force during arrests.

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

A court may grant summary judgment only when the materials of record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). An issue is "genuine" if it is supported by evidence upon which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" only if a dispute about it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law. Id. In deciding whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and extend all reasonable inferences to that party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

The moving party always bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, regardless of which party ultimately would have the burden of persuasion at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met its opening burden, the non-moving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324. The non-moving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. Id. "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322. "When the record is such that it would not support a rational finding that an essential element of the non-moving party's claim or defense exists, summary judgment must be entered for the moving party." Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 341 (3d Cir. 1990).

B. Kleinow's Motion for Summary Judgment

Kleinow has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Rinaldi has come forward with no evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that he was at the scene of the traffic stop while the alleged beating was taking place. Kleinow maintains that Wilson and Frazer were placing Rinaldi in the rear of Wilson's squad car by the time he arrived at the scene. (Kleinow N.T. at 87:7 - 88:10.)

The record evidence supports Kleinow's contention. Wilson testified at his deposition that Rinaldi was in custody by the time Kleinow arrived at the scene. (Wilson N.T. at 82:3-8.) Fraser has no recollection of Kleinow's having been at the scene at all. (Fraser N.T. at 31:17-22.) Rinaldi himself is unable to place Kleinow at the scene. (Rinaldi N.T. at 66:19 -67:3.) Knipper testified that a second police cruiser arrived at the scene at the end of the scuffle between Wilson and Rinaldi. (Knipper N.T. at 63:13 - 64:24.) It is undisputed, however, that the second vehicle was operated by Fraser. From the beginning of the altercation through the time Rinaldi was driven away from the scene in the back of one of the police cruisers and his car was towed away from the scene, Knipper saw only two police vehicles at the scene of the traffic stop. (Knipper N.T. at 67:8 -68:15.)

Rinaldi relies on the testimony of Dolby, who claims to have seen three police vehicles at or near the scene of the traffic stop:

Q: Well, before the tow truck picked [Rinaldi's] car up, did you see the car get pulled over by a police vehicle?

A: No, I didn't see it get pulled over, but it was pulled over.

Q: Did you see the vehicle as it was stopped on the side of the road with a police car either in front of it or behind it?

A: I seen it. There was a police car behind it and there was one over on one side of the storage areas, in like a little -- a little dirt spot, and then I seen a police car turning around in the Casino parking lot. (Dolby N.T. at 8:7-19.)

However, Dolby also testified that by the time he observed the scene of the traffic stop, Rinaldi was already seated in the rear of one of the police vehicles:

Q: Okay. Did you ever see the occupant of the vehicle get out of the car?

A: No. The only part I seen was -- he was already in the police car.

Q: Okay.

A: And that's when they were doing their little switching around with the cop cars; putting one over here, one over there. (Witness indicating). I didn't even see him. (Dolby N.T. at 9:13-21.)

Based on this evidence, no reasonable jury could find that Kleinow was at the scene of the traffic stop during the alleged beating. Accordingly, the court grants Kleinow's motion for summary judgment and dismisses Rinaldi's claims against Kleinow with prejudice.

C. Pullen's and the Township's Motion for Summary Judgment on Rinaldi's § 1983 Claim

Pullen and the Township have moved for summary judgment on Rinaldi's § 1983 claim, arguing that Rinaldi has not come forward with sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that they failed to properly train Wilson in the appropriate use of force and/or that they knew about and tolerated Wilson's propensity to use excessive force during arrests. Pullen also claims that the claims against him in his individual capacity must be dismissed because liability under § 1983 cannot be based on the theory of respondeat superior.

"When a suit against a municipality is based on § 1983, the municipality can only be liable when the alleged constitutional transgression implements or executes a policy, regulation or decision officially adopted by the governing body or informally adopted by custom. Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966, 971 (3d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1151 (1997)(citing Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978)). "Thus, although the municipality may not be held liable for a constitutional tort under § 1983 on the theory of vicarious liability, it can be held responsible when the injury inflicted is permitted under its adopted policy or custom." Id. (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 694).

The issue in the present case is whether Rinaldi has adduced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the alleged failure to train on the part of Pullen and the Township rises to the level of a municipal policy and/or that Pullen and the Township knew about and tolerated a custom of excessive force by Township police officers, including Wilson.

1. Pullen's Individual Liability

Rinaldi has asserted claims against Pullen in both his individual and official capacities. (See Amended Complaint at ¶ 10.) It is well-settled, however, that "[o]fficial capacity suits . . . `generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.'" Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985)(quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 690, n.55). "As long as the government entity receives notices and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than the name, to be treated as a suit against the entity." Id. at 166 (citing Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471-72 (1985)). Accordingly, the court construes Rinaldi's claim against Pullen in his official capacity as duplicative of his claim against the Township, and dismisses Rinaldi's official capacity claim against Pullen.

With regard to Rinaldi's claim against Pullen in his individual capacity, it is settled law in the Third Circuit that a police chief's mere failure to train and supervise subordinate police officers, absent proof of direct participation by the chief in a subordinate officer's unconstitutional conduct, does not form the basis for a § 1983 claim against the chief. See Brown v. Grabowski, 922 F.2d 1097, 1119-20 (3d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 591 U.S. 1218 (1991). Rinaldi does not allege direct participation by Pullen in the beating during the traffic stop. Accordingly, the court grant's Pullen's motion for summary judgment of Rinaldi's § 1983 claim against him in his individual capacity.

2. Failure to Train

In City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989), the Supreme Court held that inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability "only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact." The Court explained:

Monell's rule that a city is not liable under § 1983 unless a municipal policy causes a constitutional deprivation will not be satisfied by merely alleging that the existing training program for a class of employees, such as police officers, represents a policy for which the city is responsible. That much may be true. The issue in a case like this one, however, is whether that training program is adequate; and if it is not, the question becomes whether such inadequate training can justifiably be said to represent "city policy." It may seem contrary to common sense to assert that a municipality will actually have a policy of not taking reasonable steps to train its employees. But it may happen that in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need. In that event, the failure to provide proper training may fairly be said to represent a policy for which the city is responsible, and for which the city may be held liable if it actually causes injury. Id. at 389-90.

In the present case, Rinaldi has adduced expert testimony to the effect that Pullen and the Township failed to adequately train Wilson in the appropriate use of force during arrests and that the lack of training proximately caused Rinaldi's injuries:

[Pullen and the Township] failed to adequately train their officers regarding when to make arrests, when to use force and what force is acceptable under the circumstances. They failed to provide adequate supervision for their patrol officers, especially new officers who work alone. It is my opinion that the failure to provide the appropriate training, retraining, and supervision was a proximate cause of the injuries sustained by Mr. Rinaldi, including his false arrest and malicious prosecution, physical assault and his resulting injuries. (Expert Report of Francis R. Murphy at 8.)

The expert's opinion is based on his review of the record evidence in this case, as well as his training and experience. In light of this expert testimony and the testimony of Rinaldi and Knipper regarding the events of January 30, 1995, a reasonable jury could find that Pullen and the Township failed to properly train Wilson in the appropriate use of force during arrests, and that the need for better training was so obvious and the likelihood of an incident of excessive force so high, that this failure to train represents a municipal policy reflecting deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of citizens like Rinaldi. Accordingly, the court denies the Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's failure to train claim under § 1983.

3. Knowledge and Tolerance of Wilson's Propensity to Use Excessive Force During Arrests

It is well-settled that a municipal custom may be established "by evidence of knowledge and acquiescence." Beck, 89 F.3d at 871 (citing Fletcher v. O'Donnell, 867 F.2d 791, 793 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 492 U.S. 919 (1989)). In Beck, the Third Circuit considered the quantum of evidence required to survive a motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the plaintiff's case in a § 1983 action alleging a municipal custom based on knowledge and acquiescence of the use of excessive force by police officers. The court framed the issue as follows: "when does an aggrieved citizen adduce sufficient evidence to a jury from which it can infer that a municipality has adopted a custom of permitting its police officers to use excessive force in the performance of their duties." Id. at 967.

The plaintiff in Beck established that four citizen complaints of excessive force had been filed against the defendant police officer in a three year period preceding the alleged beating of the plaintiff, and that another citizen complaint of excessive force had been filed against that officer two months after the plaintiff filed his own complaint of excessive force. Id. at 969-970. None of those six complaints was sustained by the city department responsible for investigating complaints against police officers, and none resulted in disciplinary action against the officer. Id. at 970.

Nevertheless, the Third Circuit found that "[w]ithout more, these written complaints were sufficient for a reasonable jury to infer that the Chief of Police of Pittsburgh and his department knew, or should have known, of [the defendant officer's] violent behavior in arresting citizens." Id. at 973. In particular, the court found that "[b]ecause the complaints, especially those during the year 1991, came in a narrow period of time and were similar in nature, a reasonable jury could have inferred that the Chief of Police knew, or should have known, of [the officer's] propensity for violence when making arrests." Id. The court rejected the argument that the existence of a procedure to receive and investigate complaints of excessive force shielded the city from liability, noting:

The investigative process must be real. It must have some teeth. It must answer to the citizen by providing at lease a rudimentary chance of redress when injustice is done. The mere fact of investigation for the sake of investigation does not fulfill a city's obligation to its citizens. Id. at 974.

The court found that the adequacy of the city's investigative procedures was a question for the jury. Id. Thus, the court held that the plaintiff "presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could have inferred that the City of Pittsburgh knew about and acquiesced in a custom of tolerating the tacit use of excessive force by its police officers" and reversed the district court's entry of judgment as a matter of law in favor of the city. Id. at 976.

Rinaldi has adduced evidence that is strikingly similar to the evidence the Third Circuit found sufficient to create a genuine issue for trial in Beck. Rinaldi has demonstrated that his allegation of excessive force against Wilson was the third such complaint filed against Wilson in a nine month period during Wilson's first year on the job in the Township. One of the earlier complaints involved a traffic stop during which Wilson allegedly wielded a nightstick, as alleged in the present case. None of the complaints was sustained, and none resulted in any disciplinary action against Wilson.

Rinaldi has also adduced expert testimony in support of his theory that Pullen and the Township knew about and tolerated the use of excessive force by Wilson and other Township police officers and that this acquiescence proximately caused Rinaldi's injuries:

It is my opinion that the information provided in the limited IA amounts to a conscious decision by management and the chief of police not to fully and impartially investigate allegations made against members of the Little Egg Harbor Township Police Department. The reports I have reviewed provide evidence of gross deviations from the Attorney General Guidelines as it relates to conducting "impartial", unbiased and complete investigations. It is my opinion that the Little Egg Harbor Township Police Department have not conducted such impartial, unbiased or complete investigations into their employees' behavior which is known or should be known to violate the constitutional rights of citizens. Allowing such behavior to go unabated by the police department has, in my opinion, resulted in the adoption of an unofficial policy to continue such aberrant behavior by its members. It is my continued opinion that the police department failed to conduct reasonable, adequate, complete or impartial investigations into the excessive force complaints by their officers. This failure to investigate and discipline officers for violations of such behavior is directly related to the battery and injuries received by Mr. Rinaldi in 1995. (Supplemental Expert Report of Francis R. Murphy at 6-7.)

In light of the Third Circuit's holding in Beck, the court finds that Rinaldi has adduced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that Pullen and the Township knew about and acquiesced in a custom of tolerating the tacit use of excessive force by police officers. Accordingly, the court denies the Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's § 1983 claim that the Township knew of and tolerated Wilson's use of excessive force.

D. The Township's Motion for Summary Judgment on Rinaldi's Tort Claims Act Claim

The Township also moves for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claim under the Tort Claims Act on the ground that Rinaldi failed to file the required notice of claim under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8. It appears, however, that Rinaldi gave notice to the Township on March 30, 1995, well within N.J.S.A. 58:8-8's ninety day period for providing such notice. Accordingly, the court denies the Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claim under the Tort Claims Act. *fn3

CONCLUSION

For these reasons, the court grants Kleinow's motion for summary judgment, grants Pullen's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claims against him in his individual capacity and dismisses Rinaldi's claims against him in his official capacity as duplicative of Rinaldi's claims against the Township, and denies the Township's motion for summary judgment. The accompanying Order is entered.

Dated: March 31, 1999

ORDER

THIS MATTER having come before the court on the motions of defendants William Kleinow, Elkenney B. Pullen and the Township of Little Egg Harbor ("the Township") for summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(b), and the court having considered the moving papers and the opposition thereto, and for the reasons expressed in the accompanying Opinion;

IT IS on this 31st day of March, 1999, hereby ORDERED as follows:

1. Kleinow's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED and Rinaldi's claims against Kleinow are hereby DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE;

2. Pullen's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claims against him in his individual capacity is GRANTED and those claims are hereby DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE, and Rinaldi's claims against Pullen in his official capacity are DISMISSED as duplicative of Rinaldi's claims against the Township;

3. The Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is DENIED; and

4. The Township's motion for summary judgment on Rinaldi's claim under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 through 12-3, is DENIED.

JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. District Judge


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