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Herman v. City of Millville

March 21, 2002


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



This matter comes before the Court upon motion by defendants City of Millville, City of Millville Police Department, Patrol Officer Patricia Aiken, and Patrol Officer Christopher Groff for summary judgment against plaintiff Debbie A. Herman, and motion by defendants Maria Bonilla, on behalf of her daughter Jillian Bonilla, and Sherry Trout for summary judgment against plaintiff.

Plaintiff brings suit against defendants for having filed charges of vehicular aggravated assault, harassment, and reckless driving against plaintiff after two vehicle-related incidents that occurred on June 29, 1998, in which plaintiff allegedly accelerated her vehicle towards defendants Trout and six-year-old Jillian Bonilla to place them in fear of bodily injury, and on July 1, 1998, in which plaintiff allegedly almost hit Police Officer Patricia Aiken, who was directing traffic in an intersection. Plaintiff brings various claims against Patrolman Christopher Groff, John Doe Law Enforcement Officers and/or Employees of the City of Millville (1-100) fictitious names (hereinafter "John Doe Employees") and Patrolman Aiken, Jillian Bonilla, Maria Bonilla, and Sherry Trout, including false arrest/false imprisonment (Counts I & VI), violations of procedural and substantive due process rights under the First, Fourth, Ninth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Counts II, X, XI), intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count III & VII), negligence (Counts IV & VIII), malicious prosecution (Counts V & IX), negligent training and/or supervision against City of Millville and City of Millville Police Department (Count XII), and negligence of its officers through respondeat superior liability against City of Millville and City of Millville Police Department (Count XIII). In addition, plaintiff seeks attorney's fees and costs of litigation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For the reasons discussed herein, the defendants' two motions for summary judgment will be granted.


This action arises out of two vehicle-related incidents that occurred on June 29, 1998, and July 3, 1998. *fn1 Def.'s Br. ¶¶ 1, 2. On June 29, 1998, defendant Sherry Trout, a clerk of the Millville Police Department, and 6-year-old defendant Jillian Bonilla, daughter of Trout's friend Maria Bonilla, a clerk/translator with the Millville Municipal Court, were walking across the Wal-Mart Store parking lot in Millville, New Jersey, when plaintiff, in a car that had been stationary in a no-parking zone, allegedly accelerated her vehicle toward Bonilla and Trout so as to place them in fear of bodily injury. (Def.'s Br. ¶ 1 & Ex. A.) On July 8, 1998, defendant Maria Bonilla, Jillian's mother, approached her supervisor Jeannie DuBois for advice on reporting the incident to authorities. (Def.'s Br. Ex. C, at 70-72.) On the advice of Ms. DuBois and Millville Municipal Court Judge Kemble Salvo, Ms. Bonilla reported the incident to Captain Harvey of the Millville Police Department, who assigned the matter to Officer Groff. (Def.'s Br. Ex. D., at 74-77.) Ms. Trout and Ms. Bonilla, gave statements to Officer Groff on July 8, 1998, indicating that the driver of the white Honda had been Debbie Herman and that the passenger had possibly been plaintiff's husband, William Herman, then Chief of Police at City of Millville Police Department. (Def.'s Br. Ex. A.) Based on these statements, Officer Groff believed he had probable cause to bring charges, and spoke with Millville Municipal Court Judge Kemble Salvo about the alleged incident, who also "found probable cause . . . and advised [that] complaint(s) could be signed and sent over to Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office." (Def.'s Br. Ex. A; Def.'s Br. Ex. E, at 78-81.) Officer Groff signed a criminal summons and complaint against plaintiff, charging her with 2 counts of vehicular aggravated assault under N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1B(1), and 2 counts of harassment under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4. (Def.'s Br. Ex. G.) Officer Groff also prepared a complaint for reckless driving under N.J.S.A. 39:4-96, which was signed by Sherry Trout. (Def.'s Br. Ex. G.)

The second vehicle-related incident arises out of the following events. On July 3, 1998, defendant Millville Police Officer Patricia Aiken was directing traffic at the intersection of Fairton Road and Rieck Avenue in Millville, where a two-car accident had occurred moments before. (Def.'s Br. Ex. B.) Plaintiff had driven her vehicle through the intersection without incident, but ten minutes later returned and made a left turn on to Fairton Road, allegedly almost striking Officer Aiken, who had motioned for plaintiff to stop and had turned to look to determine if it was clear for plaintiff to make her turn. (Def.'s Br. Ex. B.) Officer Aiken returned to the police station and immediately reported the incident to Lieutenant Olah and requested an investigation. (Def.'s Br. Ex. B.) On July 8, 1998, Officer Aiken, having learned that no investigation had yet taken place, and being told to do one herself, prepared her investigation report. Officer Aiken also consulted with Municipal Court Clerk Jeannie DuBois and Judge Salvo, and signed a summons and complaint against plaintiff, charging her with attempting to purposely or recklessly cause bodily injury to a law enforcement officer while in the performance of her duties, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(5)a. (Def.'s Br. Ex. H.)

The Honorable Thomas Hein of the Millville Municipal Court presided over the trial of Mrs. Herman on the charges stemming from the incidents of June 29, 1998 and July 3, 1998. (Def.'s Br. Ex. O.) Judge Hein determined that the two counts of harassment, two counts of vehicular aggravated assault, and reckless driving charge relating to the June 29, 1998 incident were not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and found Mrs. Herman not guilty on those counts. (Id.) As to the July 3, 1998 incident, Judge Hein found that Mrs. Herman was guilty on a reduced charge of careless driving, and fined her $150 plus costs of $30. (Id.)

Defendants Aiken, Groff, City of Millville, and the Millville Police Department filed the present motion for summary judgment on July 3, 2001, and defendants Sherry Trout and Maria Bonilla filed their motion for summary judgment on July 3, 2001 as well.


I. Summary Judgment Standard

A court may grant summary judgment 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); see Lang v. New York Life Ins. Co., 721 F.2d 118, 119 (3d Cir. 1983). A dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rules of law. Id. Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Id.

In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party. See Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1080-81 (3d Cir. 1996); Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corp., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n.2 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. dismissed, 465 U.S. 1091 (1984). 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." Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329-30 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248).

The moving party always bears the initial burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists, regardless of which party ultimately would have the burden of persuasion at trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Jalil v. Avdel Corp., 873 F.2d 701, 706 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1023 (1990). The non-moving party "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of" its pleading in order to show the existence of a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). They must do more than rely only "upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions." Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 341 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1010 (1985) (citation omitted). 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 (1986). If the non-movant's evidence is merely "colorable" or is "not significantly probative," the court may grant summary judgment. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50.

II. Analysis

A. Malicious Prosecution and False Arrest Claims Against Officers Aiken and Groff, Maria Bonilla, Jillian Bonilla, and Sherry Trout

Defendants Aiken and Groff argue that they both had probable cause for bringing charges against plaintiff Herman, and therefore summary judgment should be granted on plaintiff's claims against them for false arrest/false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, negligence, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of constitutional rights under § 1983. *fn2 Defendants Maria Bonilla and Sherry Trout also argue that they had probable cause and therefore summary judgment should be granted in their favor.

A claim for false arrest requires a showing of an "arrest or detention of the person against his or her will; and lack of proper legal authority or `legal justification.'" Mesgleski v. Oraboni, 330 N.J. Super. 10, 24 (App. Div. 2000) (quoting Barletta v. Golden Nugget Hotel Casino, 580 F. Supp. 614, 617 (D.N.J. 1984)). The existence of probable cause is a defense to false arrest if it serves to validate the arrest. See Mesgleski, 330 N.J. Super. at 24 (citing Bauer v. Borough of Cliffside Park, 225 N.J. Super. 38, 47 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 113 N.J. 330 (1988)); see also Hill v. Algor, 85 F. Supp. 2d 391, 412 (D.N.J. 2000) ("If the defendant proves that he had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff, then the plaintiff's false arrest claim fails.").

Under New Jersey law, a malicious prosecution claim may be brought if plaintiff establishes that the defendant (1) instituted proceedings (2) without probable cause and (3) with legal malice, and (4) the proceedings terminated in favor of the plaintiff. See Trabal v. Wells Fargo Armored Serv. Corp., 269 F.3d 243, 248 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Lightning Lube v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1197 (3d Cir. 1993)); see also Van Engelen v. O'Leary, 323 N.J. Super. 141, 156 (App. Div. 1999) (citing Lind v. Schmid, 67 N.J. 255, 262 (1975)), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 486 (1999). "[P]laintiff's inability to prove any of these four elements is fatal to his continued prosecution of this generally unfavored cause of action." Fleming v. United States Postal Serv., Inc., 273 N.J. Super. 526, 529 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 138 N.J. 264 (1994).

Because probable cause is an absolute defense to plaintiff's false arrest and malicious prosecution claims, see Wildoner v. Borough of Ramsey, 162 N.J. 375, 389 (2000), the central issue is whether there was probable cause, or alternatively, whether it was objectively reasonable for the officers to believe that probable cause existed at the time complaints were signed against plaintiff. Id. In determining whether there was probable cause to bring charges against Mrs. Herman for the June 29, 1998 incident, the Court looks to the statutes Mrs. Herman allegedly violated. N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4C provides that "a person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he . . . [e]ngages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person." N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4C. "Probable cause exists if at the time of the arrest `the facts and circumstances within [the officers'] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.'" Wildoner, 162 N.J. at 389 (quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964)).

Officer Groff investigated the incident of June 29, 1998, involving plaintiff, Ms. Trout and Jillian Bonilla. In his police report, Officer Groff's report stated that

[Ms. Trout] related that as [she] and Jillian started to walk across the roadway portion of lot she heard a car coming at them and noticed it was Debbie Herman, and as vehicle passed them very closely it accelerated quickly, then left area. Sherry Trout was asked if she was certain who the driver was and answered that she is sure it was Debbie Herman, that she made eye contact with her, as well as taking note of the registration plate . . . . Sherry Trout explained that she was in fear for her and Jillian, as she does not know what accused is trying to do or capable of doing. Def.'s Br. Ex. A.

Maria Bonilla provided statements to Officer Groff after her daughter Jillian told her about the above incident on July 1, 1998. Id.; Def.'s Br. Ex. C, at 72. Maria Bonilla and Sherry Trout went to the police department to report the incident after hearing that "Ms. Herman tried to run someone else over." Mun. Ct. Tr. 1/20/99, at 90. Based on the statements provided by Sherry Trout and Maria Bonilla, Officer Groff signed a complaint against plaintiff on July 8, 1998, charging her with 2 counts of vehicular aggravated assault under N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1B(1) ...

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