The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barry, District Judge.
Assistant prosecutor Sara Sencer-McArdle (improperly pled as "Sara
Spencer-McArdle") ("Sencer-McArdle"), Essex County Prosecutor's Office
("ECPO") investigators George McGrath ("McGrath") and Richard
Mastroangelo ("Mastroangelo") (collectively the "county investigators"),
and Division of Youth and Family Services investigator Louis Fonolleras
("Fonolleras"), all move for summary judgment on the complaint of
plaintiff Margaret Kelly Michaels ("Michaels") on the ground of absolute
or qualified immunity. Defendant and third party plaintiff psychologist
Susan Esquilin (improperly pled as "Susan Esquillan") ("Esquilin"), also
moves to dismiss Michaels' complaint for failure to state a claim.*fn1
The court has reviewed the submissions of the parties without oral
argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78. For the reasons discussed below,
each of the defendants' motions will be granted.
The facts of this case are, by now, well known. Michaels, after being
convicted of numerous counts of child sexual abuse, spent five years in
prison before being released when the Appellate Division reversed her
conviction and remanded for a retrial. The Supreme Court, affirmed, but
the charges against Michaels were subsequently dismissed. She comes
before this court seeking damages for being subjected to an allegedly
unconstitutional investigation at the hands of defendants. This court
will not attempt to recap every nuance of the case's history, and that
history is well documented in the various opinions which have preceded
this opinion.*fn2 Only what is relevant to the pending motions will be
On April 26, 1985, upon being examined by his pediatrician, one of the
children (M.P.) for whom Michaels cared at the Wee Care Nursery in
Maplewood, New Jersey, made an allegation of sexual abuse against her.
Four days later, that allegation was referred to the Institutional Abuse
Investigation Unit of the Division of Youth and Family Services
("DYFS"). Schiripo Cert., Exh. A, Fonolleras Dep. I at 71. Fonolleras,
the investigator assigned to the DYFS "investigation, contacted ECPO
investigator Mastrangelo on May 1, 1985, as required by law, and
Mastrangelo brought the matter to the attention of Sencer-McArdle, the
director of the Child Abuse Unit of the ECPO. Sencer-McArdle Cert. ¶ 5.
Within a few days, four more children (E.N., S.R., C.C. and M.R.) came
forward with allegations of abuse at the hands of Michaels. Id. ¶ 6.
Sencer-McArdle interviewed all five children, in early May, after each
child was initially interviewed by a county investigator. id. ¶ 6-8.
Esquilin, after being contacted by either the ECPO or DYFS by virtue of
her position at United Hospital, conducted one interview and attended
another. Esquilin Dep. at 61-63.
Fonolleras and others conducted several more interviews of the children.
Fonolleras Dep. at 87. On May 6, 1985, Michaels took a polygraph
examination, the results of which were inconclusive.
Sencer-McArdle convened a grand jury on May 24, 1985 based on the
allegations of three of the five children she interviewed (M.P., S.R. and
C.C.). Sencer-McArdle Cert. ¶ 9. On June 6, 1985, the first of three
indictments against Michaels was returned. Id. ¶ 8. Michaels was
arrested at her East Orange apartment on June 12, 1985. Mannion Cert.,
Exh. A, McGrath Dep. II at 87.
Subsequent to the first indictment, the county investigators were
notified by DYFS that there were other children claiming to have been
sexually abused by Michaels. Sencer-McArdle Cert. ¶ 10. Interviews of
these children by the county investigators followed, but Sencer-McArdle
did not participate. Id. Instead, Sencer-McArdle interviewed parents and
teachers, reviewed transcripts the county investigators had made of their
interviews with the children (id.), and advised the investigators as to
how to handle the interviews. Santore Cert., Exh. H, Noonan Dep. at
29-31. When Sencer-McArdle thereafter decided to present the newly
gathered information to a second grand jury, she interviewed the latest
group of children. A one hundred and seventy four count indictment
involving approximately twenty children was returned by the second grand
jury on July 30, 1985. Sencer-McArdle Cert. ¶ 11.
After the second indictment was returned, the ECPO was contacted
regarding additional allegations of abuse of yet other children, and
those children were interviewed by the investigators. Id. Alter those
initial interviews, Sencer-McArdle interviewed the children in
preparation for a third grand jury, which returned the final fifty-five
count indictment against Michaels on November 21, 1985. Id.
Trial against Michaels commenced on June 22, 1987 in the Superior Court
of New Jersey on the one hundred and sixty-three counts returned by the
three grand juries.*fn3 Assistant prosecutors Sencer-McArdle and Glenn
Goldberg led the prosecution. Esquilin and Fonolleras both testified for
the prosecution at the trial.
In April of 1988, Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of aggravated
sexual assault, sexual assault, endangering the welfare of children, and
terroristic threats. See Michaels, 136 N.J. at 305-06, 642 A.2d 1372. The
Appellate Division reversed the convictions on March 26, 1993, and
remanded for a new trial. See Michaels, 264 N.J.Super. at 629-32,
625 A.2d 489. The Appellate Division directed that a pretrial hearing
would be required to ascertain the reliability of the children's
statements and testimony should the prosecution decide to retry the case
(id. at 631-32, 625 A.2d 489), and the Supreme Court of New Jersey
agreed. See Michaels, 136 N.J. at 324, 642 A.2d 1372 (agreeing with the
Appellate Division on the need for a taint hearing, stating that "the
interrogations . . . were improper and there is a substantial likelihood
that the evidence derived from them is unreliable"). On December 1,
1994, the ECPO formally dismissed all criminal charges against Michaels.
Compl., First Count, ¶ 25.
On June 13, 1996, Michaels filed a six-count complaint against a
multitude of defendants in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law
Division, Essex County. Defendants removed the case to this court on July
25, 1996. All that remains of the complaint, however, are Michaels'
malicious prosecution and Section 1983 claims against Sencer-McArdle,
McGrath, Mastrangelo, Fonolleras and Esquilin.*fn4 Discovery on the
issue of immunity having
concluded, these defendants now move for dismissal of the claims against
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment may be granted when "there is no genuine issue as to
any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a
matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When ruling on a motion for summary
judgment, all facts and reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence are
viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574,
587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The moving party has the
initial burden of pointing out the absence of a genuine issue as to any
material fact, but summary judgment is only granted against a party who
fails to demonstrate "the existence of an element essential to that
party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at
trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91
L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).
B. Michaels' Claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
In support of her claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Michaels
alleges that each defendant violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights in
conducting the investigation.*fn5 Specifically, Michaels contends that
the defendants: one, improperly suggested false allegations to the
children and thereby destroyed their capacity to remember or recall;
two, brainwashed the children with the aforementioned false suggestions;
three, distorted the children's memories with suggestive and leading
questions; four, used selective reinforcement via threats, coercion and
bribes; five, failed to record interviews with the children and destroyed
or intentionally lost tapes of interviews; and six, used gross and
egregious interrogation techniques which included threatening and
suggestive methods, in addition to coaching the children as to their
interviews prior to taping. "Amended Compl., ¶ 27(a)-(f).*fn6
A Section 1983 claim must be based on an alleged constitutional, or
federal statutory, violation.*fn7 If a defendant enjoys either absolute
or qualified immunity, however, the action should be dismissed at the
outset. Immunity is not simply a means of avoiding trial but, rather, a
method of preventing a party from having to be subjected to litigation at
all. See Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 483
(3d Cir. 1995). If at all possible, therefrom, immunity issues should be
resolved by the court at an early stage, as a matter of law. See Hunter
v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228, 112 S.Ct. 534, 116 L.Ed.2d 589 (1991).
Absolute immunity exists for those officers who perform judicial or
quasi-judicial functions. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 420, 96
S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976). Prosecutors are absolutely immune from
liability under § 1983 for their conduct in "initiating a prosecution
and presenting the State's case" insofar as that conduct is "intimately
associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." See id. at
430-431, 96 S.Ct. 984. Other officers, such as investigators, enjoy
qualified immunity for their discretionary functions. See Malley v.
Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 340, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986). Whether
an actor enjoys absolute or qualified immunity is based on the function
he or she performs, not the title he or she holds. See Jean v. Collins,
155 F.3d 701, 707 (4th Cir. 1998) ("[I]mmunity is tied to the nature of
the function performed and not to the identity of the defendant
performing that function "), cert. petition filed, 67 USLW 3409 (Dec.
16, 1998). In this case, the only remaining defendant eligible for
absolute immunity is assistant prosecutor Sencer-McArdle, as none of the
others performed any judicial or quasi-judicial functions.
A prosecutor generally enjoys absolute immunity for his or her
quasi-judicial functions, or, to put it another way, when he or she is
acting as an advocate for the state. Examples of such functions include:
deciding whether or not to seek an indictment based on evidence gathered
by law enforcement officers, see Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259,
113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209 (1993); preparing for grand jury or trial
proceedings, see Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47
L.Ed.2d 128 (1976); and presenting evidence at a probable cause hearing.
See Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 111 S.Ct. 1934, 114 L.Ed.2d 547 (1991).
A prosecutor does not enjoy absolute immunity, however, for functions
deemed investigative in nature, such as the ...