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Mesgleski v. Oraboni

April 03, 2000

KENNETH MESGLESKI AND LINDA MESGLESKI, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS,
v.
PETER J. ORABONI AND THE NEW JERSEY SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS, OCEAN COUNTY BRANCH, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS.



Before Judges Petrella and Braithwaite.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted March 6, 2000

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Civil Part, Ocean County.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

Plaintiffs Kenneth and Linda Mesgleski appeal from a Law Division order granting summary judgment in favor of defendants Peter J. Oraboni and the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Ocean County Branch (SPCA). On their appeal, plaintiffs argue that the motion judge erred in determining that the SPCA is a public entity under the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq. (the Act). They assert that Oraboni violated Kenneth Mesgleski's civil rights; *fn1 he had no legal right to enter plaintiffs' home; the issue of trespass should be decided by a jury; Oraboni should be considered a state actor utilizing the color and authority of law as to the claimed torts and civil rights violations; and even if the SPCA were a public entity, Oraboni's acts are not covered by the Act.

On December 8, 1994, Linda Mesgleski brought a puppy into the New Jersey Animal Control Center in Bricktown that had been beaten by her husband, Kenneth, to prevent the dog from being shot by him. An investigation was undertaken by Oraboni, a captain in the SPCA, who concluded that a summons should issue to Mesgleski.

Oraboni went to Mesgleski's home in Brick Township to serve the summons on December 13. When Mesgleski opened the door, Oraboni identified himself and said he was there regarding an animal cruelty complaint. To prevent Mesgleski from shutting the door he placed his right foot and knee in the door's threshold. Mesgleski demanded that Oraboni leave, told his wife to call the police, and flung the door shut, striking Oraboni's right knee and hand. The door then bounced back and hit Mesgleski in the right knee and shoulder. Oraboni then told Mesgleski he was under arrest and stepped a little way inside the house to wait for the Brick Township police. When the police arrived, Oraboni told them he wanted Mesgleski arrested and that he would sign a complaint, which he subsequently did at police headquarters, charging Mesgleski with assaulting him and with cruelty to an animal. Mesgleski signed a cross-complaint for assault. The assault complaints were subsequently withdrawn by the parties in the municipal court and Mesgleski pled guilty "with a reservation" to the charge of cruelty to an animal.

By a certified mail letter of January 25, 1995, plaintiffs' attorney gave notice to the SPCA "pursuant to Title 59 of the New Jersey State Statutes Annotated that Mr. Mesgleski is making a claim against the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a result of an assault and illegal, unlawful and improper arrest by Captain Oraboni" on December 13, 1994. A six count civil complaint was filed by plaintiffs on August 21, 1995, and included claims by Mesgleski for personal injuries to his right knee and shoulder and emotional distress. *fn2

On the trial date, plaintiffs sought a directed verdict for violation of their civil rights and a ruling limiting evidence regarding cruelty to an animal, thus causing a trial delay. The requests were scheduled for subsequent argument and defendants cross-moved for dismissal of the complaint or summary judgment. After arguments on the applications, the motion judge denied plaintiffs' requests for a directed verdict and to preclude use of evidence at trial of Mesgleski's acts of cruelty to his dog. The SPCA was held to be a "public entity" and Oraboni a "public employee" entitled to the substantive immunities, defenses and restrictions of the Act. A July 17, 1998 order reflected the rulings and the grant of defendants' motion. Plaintiffs' claims of violation of their federal civil rights were dismissed as were their claims for false arrest and related civil rights violations.

In addition, all claims against the defendants with respect to allegations of failure to comply with statutes and rules regarding arrest procedure and related civil rights claims were dismissed. Finally, the order dismissed plaintiffs' civil rights claims predicated on an allegation that Oraboni failed to advise Mesgleski of his Miranda *fn3 rights. Plaintiffs' motion for leave to appeal the order was denied.

Subsequently, defendants moved for summary judgment on the remaining claims. Because plaintiffs conceded they could not meet the tort damages threshold requirements of the Act, the motion was granted and the complaint dismissed in its entirety.

I.

Plaintiffs argue there was no intent by the Legislature to qualify the SPCA as a public entity for Title 59 protection. They argue that although N.J.S.A. 4:22-1 authorizes the incorporation of the SPCA, it does not establish the SPCA or make it a state agency or entity, and hence it should not be within the ambit of the Act governing public entities and the SPCA and its employees should be civilly liable for plaintiffs' damages.

The SPCA is incorporated under N.J.S.A. 4:22-1, which provides:

The corporation under the name of "the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals", created for the purpose of the enforcement of all laws enacted for the protection of dumb animals, by the act entitled "An act to incorporate the New Jersey society for the prevention of cruelty to animals," ... is hereby continued.

Public entities are immune from liability for personal injuries, except under the conditions and circumstances detailed in the Act. Schwarz v. Port Authority Transit Corp. Div. of Delaware Port Auth., 305 N.J. Super. 581, 593 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 153 N.J. 214 (1997). The Act provides in N.J.S.A. 59:1-2:

[I]t is hereby declared to be the public policy of this State that public entities shall only be liable for their negligence within the limitations of this Act and in accordance with the fair and uniform principles established herein. All of the provisions of this Act should be construed with a view to carry out the above legislative declaration.

The Act also directs in N.J.S.A. 59:2-1(a):

Except as otherwise provided by this Act, a public entity is not liable for an injury, whether such injury arises out of an act or omission of the public entity or a public employee or any other person.

The legislative goal of the Act is "to re-establish immunity for all governmental bodies within its definition of 'public entity.' Immunity is all-inclusive within that definition except as otherwise provided by the Act." English v. Newark Housing Auth., 138 N.J. Super. 425, 428-429 (App. Div. 1976).

N.J.S.A. 59:1-3 defines "public entity" as:

"Public entity" includes the State, and any county, municipality, district, public authority, public agency, and any other political subdivision or public body in the State. 'State' shall mean the State and any office, department, division, bureau, board, commission or agency of the State, but shall not include any such entity which is statutorily authorized to sue and be sued. (Emphasis supplied).

The Comment to this section states that "[t]he definition of 'Public Entity' provided in this section is intended to be all inclusive and to apply uniformly throughout the State of New Jersey to all entities ...


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