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HILL v. ALGOR

January 18, 2000

ERNEST HILL, (AKA) ANTOINE HILL, PLAINTIFF,
V.
JEFFREY ALGOR, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE OFFICER, DAVID HENRY MEYER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE OFFICER, ROBERT KWAP, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE OFFICER, STEPHEN MAKUKA, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE OFFICER, AND JOHN DOES (1 THROUGH 6 INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE OFFICERS), DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brotman, District Judge.

    OPINION ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Presently before this Court is the motion of defendants Trooper David Henry Meyer ("Meyer"), Trooper Robert Kwap ("Kwap") and Trooper Stephen Makuka ("Makuka") for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.*fn1

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action arises out of events occurring in the aftermath of a January 19, 1996 shootout between New Jersey state troopers and drug suspects inside the Happy Dragon Chinese Restaurant located at Twenty-Eighth and Mickle Streets in Camden, New Jersey. On this night, troopers Algor, Meyer ("Meyer"), Roy Baker ("Baker"), and Sgt. Stewart Whiteman ("Whitman"), pursuant to the Camden Initiative,*fn2 were on patrol in the Camden area. They responded to a report of drug activity at the restaurant. As a result of the gunfire which ensued, Baker was severely wounded, and a drug suspect was killed.

While these events were unfolding, plaintiff Ernest Hill ("Hill") was walking along Twenty-Eighth Street to the bus stop to catch a bus to Pennsauken. As he walked, Hill heard gunfire. Hill continued toward the bus stop but paused directly across the street from the restaurant, noting the presence of state troopers. Hill also noticed an African-American male lying in the entrance to the restaurant. While Hill could not positively identify the male, he believed the man to be his friend Moses Clary. Hill yelled to the troopers to call an ambulance. The parties dispute the events which followed Hill's arrival on the scene, including both Hill's and the troopers' actions. Ultimately, Hill was arrested for obstruction of justice. Algor and Meyer were the officers who arrested Hill.

After his arrest, Hill was transported to the Camden Police Administration Building. Shortly thereafter, Hill was transported to the State Police Barracks in Bellmawr, New Jersey ("the Barracks"). On this night, Kwap was the acting shift supervisor of the Barracks. At the Barracks, Hill was placed in a holding cell, where, handcuffed to a bench, he remained from 11:45 p.m. until approximately 2:30 a.m. During this time, Hill claims that he was beaten by a group of state troopers. Hill does not know the identities of these troopers.

At around 2:45 a.m., Investigator Charles Bentham ("Bentham") entered Hill's holding cell to move him to another room where his official statement would be taken. Upon entering the cell, Bentham noticed some blood on Hill's clothing, hands, and head near the hairline. Bentham took Hill to a restroom to wash the blood from his face and hands.

In the interrogation room Bentham and Makuka asked Hill questions and took his statement, which process did not end until approximately 4:30 a.m. Makuka, who was off-duty on this night, was summoned to the Barracks to question Hill concerning the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Trooper Baker.

Ultimately, Hill was charged with obstruction of justice in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 and released from the Barracks between 4:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on January 20, 1996. After his release, Hill sought treatment at Cooper Medical Center. At the hospital, Hill received stitches in his head. In addition, Hill complains of spinal and knee injuries as a result of his assault.

On January 17, 1997, Hill filed a complaint against the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Police Department, and John Does 1-6 individually and as state police officers. On October 10, 1997, the Court granted Hill's motion to amend his complaint, and on October 2, 1997, Hill filed an amended complaint naming Algor as a defendant. On October 14, 1997, the Court dismissed with prejudice all federal and state claims against the State of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Police Department. On February 23, 1999, Algor filed a motion seeking summary judgment on all claims. In an Opinion and Order dated June 1, 1999 ("the June Opinion"), the Court granted Algor's motion for summary judgment as to the following claims:

(1) First Cause of Action (42 U.S.C. § 1983): that part which alleges a violation of Hill's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection; and
(2) Second Cause of Action: Conspiracy based upon discriminatory animus under 42. U.S.C. § 1985(3).

(Order dated June 1, 1999.) In addition, pursuant to Hill's decision not to pursue against Algor the following claims, the Court dismissed these claims with prejudice:

(1) First Cause of Action (42 U.S.C. § 1983): those parts which allege a violation of Hill's:
i. Eighth Amendment right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment;
ii. Sixth Amendment right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusations against him;
iii. Fourth Amendment right to be protected against punishment disproportionate to any crime;

(2) Third Cause of Action (42 U.S.C. § 1983);

(3) Fourth Cause of Action (42 U.S.C. § 1983);

(4) Sixth Cause of Action (Negligence). Order dated June 1, 1999.

Thus, the remaining claims against Algor which survived summary judgment and may proceed to trial include:

(1) First Cause of Action (42 U.S.C. § 1983): that part alleging violation of Hill's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment right to protection from false arrest and excessive force;
(2) Fifth Cause of Action alleging common law assault; and
(3) Ninth Cause of Action alleging common law false arrest.

On March 22, 1999, the Court granted Hill's motion to amend his complaint for a second time, and the following day Hill filed a second amended complaint. The second amended complaint adds Meyer, Kwap, Makuka, and John Does 1-6 as defendants. It alleges that defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). It also contains state law causes of action for assault, negligence, respondeat superior, malicious prosecution, and false arrest. On October 8, 1999 defendants Meyer, Kwap, and Makuka filed the summary judgment motion that is presently before the Court.*fn3

II. DISCUSSION

A. JURISDICTION

The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 1367.

B. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

The standard for granting a motion for summary judgment is a stringent one, but it is not insurmountable. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 provides that summary judgment may be granted only when 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." Serbin v. Bora Corp., 96 F.3d 66, 69 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1996). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the court must grant all reasonably inferences from the evidence to the non-moving party. The threshold inquiry is whether there are "any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

Supreme Court decisions mandate that a summary judgment motion must be granted unless the party opposing the motion "provides evidence `such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Lawrence v. National Westminster Bank New Jersey, 98 F.3d 61, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505). Once the moving party has carried its burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The non-moving party must "make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of [every] element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Serbin, 96 F.3d at 69 n. 2 (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)); see also Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991) (declaring that non-movant may not "rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or . . . vague statements"). Thus, if the non-movant's evidence is merely "colorable" or is "not significantly probative," the court may grant summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

FEDERAL CLAIMS

C. COUNT ONE: VIOLATION OF 42 U.S.C. § 1983

In count one of his second amended complaint, Hill alleges that defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by infringing on his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to protection from false arrest and excessive force. See Second Am. Compl. ¶ 20.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides in relevant part as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

This statute "is not itself a source of substantive rights, but a method for vindicating parts of the United States Constitution and federal statutes that it describes." Alexander v. Whitman, 114 F.3d 1392, 1400 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 949, 118 S.Ct. 367, 139 L.Ed.2d 286 (1997) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 n. 3, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979)).

1. False Arrest

An arrest that is made without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment. See Skevofilax v. Quigley, 586 F. Supp. 532, 545 (D.N.J. 1984). The Third Circuit has defined probable cause as follows:

Id. 71 F.3d 480, 482-83.

Hill was charged with obstruction of justice pursuant to N.J.S.A. § 2C:29-1, which states in pertinent part:

A person commits an offense if he purposely obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function by means of intimidation, by force, violence or physical interference or obstacle, or by means of any independently unlawful act.

N.J.S.A. § 2C:29-1. Hill alleges that Meyer and Algor arrested him for obstruction of justice without probable cause, effectuating a false arrest.

In the June Opinion, the Court denied Algor's motion for summary judgment as to Hill's false arrest claim, noting significant differences in the accounts given by Hill and defendants Algor and Meyer regarding the events leading up to Hill's arrest. See Op. and Order dated June 1, 1999. Specifically, the Court noted the following matters in dispute:

1. Algor and Meyers both testified in their respective depositions that "Hill made threatening movements while in proximity to the crime scene. These movements included reaching down into his waistband and failing to retreat when instructed to do so by the officers on the scene." (citations omitted);
2. Hill testified in his deposition that he was "moving" but "does not address the troopers' allegation that Hill repeatedly moved his hands toward his waistband. Hill attempts to explain away this allegation in his opposition brief by arguing that `the allegation that Mr. Hill moved his arms about is a completely natural action for someone requesting medical assistance.'" (citation omitted).

The Court went on to explain why summary judgment was not proper:

While it is clear that Hill failed to retreat when asked to do so — either once or multiple times — it is unclear whether Hill responded to the officers' requests by moving closer to the crime scene or simply by remaining stationary. This uncertainty is the result of confusion regarding what Hill meant by his admission that he was "moving"; he could have been moving just his arms as he yelled for someone to call an ambulance and/or he could have been moving his feet. It is also unclear whether Hill reached down to his waistband, as Algor and Meyer allege, or whether Hill simply flailed his arms about as part of the emotional outburst he was purportedly having.

Op. dated June 1, 1999 at 9.

Meyer, who was added as a defendant in Hill's second amended complaint, now seeks summary judgment as to the false arrest claim, asserting identical arguments as those launched by Algor in his summary judgment motion, namely that there existed probable cause to arrest Hill. Thus, for the same reasons stated in the June Opinion denying Algor's motion for summary judgment, Meyer's motion as to Hill's false arrest claim also will be denied.*fn4

2. Excessive Force

a. Defendant Meyer

Hill alleges that defendant Meyer used excessive force in effectuating his arrest. "In addressing an excessive force claim brought under § 1983, analysis begins by identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). Relevant to this inquiry is the status of the plaintiff at the time of the alleged violation. In Graham, the Supreme Court made explicit that the Fourth Amendment governs excessive force claims arising out of an arrest or investigatory stop. 490 U.S. at 395, 109 S.Ct. 1865. As Hill's excessive force claim against Meyer arises from events occurring during his arrest, a Fourth Amendment analysis is appropriate.

Under the Fourth Amendment, whether an officer used excessive force is assessed by the "objective reasonableness" of that officer's conduct. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). Whether the force used to effectuate an arrest is reasonable depends upon "the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id. at 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865. The reasonableness of the force used "must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." Id.

In the June Opinion, the Court denied Algor's motion for summary judgment on the excessive force claim, finding genuine issues of material fact as to "the actual events leading up to Hill's arrest, the extent of Hill's resistance to arrest, and the amount of force that Algor used in arresting Hill." (Op. dated June 1, 1999 at 12.) For the ...


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