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Gonzalez v. State

April 13, 1999

ISABEL GONZALEZ, LOUIS GONZALEZ, ELIZABETH GONZALEZ, AND LOUIS GONZALEZ, JR.,
PLAINTIFFS,
V.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



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

HON. JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

SIMANDLE, District Judge

This matter is before the court on the motion of defendants Robert A. Largent and Josephina Martinez to dismiss plaintiffs' Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The primary issue is whether plaintiffs have adequately pleaded a cause of action against Largent and Martinez under the "state-created danger" theory in connection with the murder of plaintiffs' decedent, Franklin Township Police Officer Ippolito "Lee" Gonzalez, who was shot and killed by a paroled murderer. For the reasons discussed below, the court holds that plaintiffs have not adequately pleaded a "state-created danger" case against Largent and Martinez and, therefore, grants the defendants' motion to dismiss.

BACKGROUND

This case arises out of the murder of a New Jersey police officer by a convicted murderer who had been released on parole from a Pennsylvania correctional institution just a few months earlier.

On May 6, 1995, defendant Robert "Mudman" Simon shot and killed Franklin Township Police Officer Ippolito "Lee" Gonzalez during an otherwise routine traffic stop of a car in which Simon was a passenger. (Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 91-94.) Simon and the driver of the car, defendant Charles "Shovel" Staples, are members of the "Warlocks" motorcycle gang, a group with an alleged propensity for violence towards police officers. (Id. at ¶¶ 25-26, 37, 91.) Simon has since been convicted of the murder of Officer Gonzalez, while Staples has been convicted of related charges. (Id. at ¶¶ 95-96.)

Simon had been released on parole from a Pennsylvania prison where he was serving time for a 1974 Warlock-related murder just three months before he shot and killed Officer Gonzalez, despite a record of misconduct and violence during his incarceration that included drug use, suspected drug sales, the suspected murder of another inmate, and continued involvement with the Warlocks. (Id. at ¶¶ 38-41, 44, 60, 79.) Indeed, a January 6, 1993 report regarding a psychological evaluation of Simon characterized him as "a psychopath," and the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole ("PBP&P") denied a parole application from Simon on January 21, 1993 because of the high risk of his continued involvement with the Warlocks and his need for substance abuse treatment. (Id. at ¶¶ 49-50.) The PBP&P hearing examiner who recommended Simon for parole in November 1994 conditioned the approval on Simon's abstinence from alcohol and his avoidance of contact with Warlocks. (Id. at ¶¶ 53.) Even before Simon's parole was finally approved, however, Staples began making arrangements for Simon to take up residence in a trailer park in Williamstown, New Jersey, an alleged Warlock stronghold. (Id. at ¶¶ 66- 69.)

Officer Gonzalez's family began this civil action by filing a Complaint on May 6, 1997. Plaintiff Isabel Gonzalez is Officer Gonzalez's sister-in-law and the administrator of his estate. (Id. at ¶ 8.) Plaintiff Louis Gonzalez Officer Gonzalez's brother and Isabel's husband. (Id. at ¶ 9.) Plaintiffs Elizabeth Gonzalez and Louis Gonzalez, Jr. are the children of Isabel and Louis Gonzalez. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on June 6, 1997.

Largent and Martinez are PBP&P officials who played some role in the decision to release Simon on parole and to permit him to take up residence in Williamstown. (Id. at ¶ 21.) More specifically, Largent was the Director of Interstate Services for PBP&P at the time of Simon's release on parole and, in that capacity, he was responsible for overseeing the transfer of Simon to New Jersey. Martinez was an Institutional Parole Agent for PBP&P at Graterford Prison who was involved in the administrative preparations for Simon's transfer to New Jersey. On the basis of their personal involvement in Simon's transfer to New Jersey, the court denied an earlier motion to dismiss plaintiffs' Complaint against Largent and Martinez for lack of personal jurisdiction, while granting the motion with respect to the other Pennsylvania Defendants. See Gonzalez v. State of New Jersey, et al., Civil Action No. 97-2512, slip op. at 16-19 (D.N.J. June 29, 1998).

The main thrust of plaintiffs' Amended Complaint is that Simon should not have been released from prison on parole and permitted to take up residence in Williamstown. In Count I, plaintiffs allege that Largent and Martinez contributed to a "state-created danger" by approving Simon's release on parole and allowing him to take up residence in Williamstown without warning Officer Gonzalez and other police officers in the area, despite their knowledge of Simon's criminal history, his record of misconduct and violence while incarcerated, and his longstanding membership in the Warlocks, a group with an alleged well-known propensity for violence towards police officers, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 97-114.) In Count VI, plaintiffs allege that Largent and Martinez were deliberately indifferent to Officer Gonzalez's constitutional rights in enforcing allegedly defective PBP&P policies, customs and procedures and failing to provide adequate training, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. at ¶¶ 129-132.) Finally, in Count VII, plaintiffs allege that Largent and Martinez conspired with the other defendants to deprive Officer Gonzalez of his civil rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985 and state conspiracy law.

DISCUSSION

A. Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Standard

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted does not attack the merits of a case, but merely tests the legal sufficiency of a plaintiff's complaint. See Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996). When considering such a motion, a district court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994); Hakimoglu v. Trump Taj Mahal Assoc., 876 F. Supp. 625, 628-29 (D.N.J. 1994); aff'd, 70 F.3d 291 (3d Cir. 1995). A district court also must accept as true any and all reasonable inferences derived from those facts. See Oshiver v. Levin Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 (3d Cir. 1994); Schrob v. Catterson, 948 F.2d 1402, 1405 (3d Cir. 1991); Glenside West Corp. v. Exxon Co., U.S.A., 761 F. Supp. 1100, 1107 (D.N.J. 1991). However, a district court need not credit a complaint's "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions." In re Burlington Coat Factory ...


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