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SONNTAG v. PAPPAROZZI

April 16, 2003

CHARLES SONNTAG AND FRANK BROWN, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARIO PAPPAROZZI, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY; WILLIAM MCCARGO, ROLANDO GOMEZ-RIVERA, DOMINIC PORREVECCHIO, RACHEL TORRES-CHOWANIEC, RUBY WASHINGTON, JOSEPH CONSTANCE, OSCAR DOYLE, HERBERTO COLLAZZO, LORRAINE KULIK, KENNETH CONNELLY, GEORGE YEFCHEK, LAURIE FUCHS, STEVEN GOLDBERG, JOYCE ARCINEACO-KRUEGER, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; AND CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN AND DONALD DIFRANCESCO, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joel A. Pisano, District Judge.

OPINION

Plaintiffs bring this action against former and current members of the New Jersey State Parole Board, and the former Governor and acting Governor of New Jersey, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The Complaint seeks injunctive and declaratory relief on behalf of a putative class of all inmates in New Jersey State Prisons incarcerated as a result of decisions in which at least one temporary Parole Board member participated, allegedly in violation of N.J.S.A. § 30:4-123.47. Defendants now move to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on multiple grounds: failure of the due process claim because of the de facto officer doctrine, absolute and qualified immunity for the Defendants, the favorable termination defense to such allegations under § 1983, the Eleventh Amendment bars the allegations, and the abstention doctrine. Because the Court finds that the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions, and meet the prerequisites of the de facto officer doctrine, it does not address the merits of the other asserted grounds for dismissal.

I. Statement of Facts

Plaintiffs Charles Sonntag and Frank Brown are inmates incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison, and bring this action on behalf of all New Jersey State Prison inmates incarcerated as a result of decisions of the New Jersey State Parole Board in which at least one temporary Board member participated (Compl. ¶¶ 3-4, 23). Plaintiffs allege that temporary Board members were appointed in violation of the Parole Act, in particular N.J.S.A. § 30:4-123.47, and panel decisions that included the participation of temporary Board members are invalid (Compl. ¶ 39). This statute provides that Parole Board members "shall be appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate." N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.47(a). Plaintiffs allege this requirement was violated by the appointment of temporary Board members without Senate confirmation (Compl. ¶ 55).

While the Complaint names all the current members of the Parole Board as defendants, the crux of the allegations involve the appointment of three members: Laurie Fuchs, Steven Goldberg and Joyce Arcineaco-Krueger.*fn1 Defendant Fuchs was appointed as a temporary Board member by former Governor Christine Todd Whitman and acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco in January 2001, and eventually became an Associate Board member with State Senate confirmation in December 2001.*fn2 Defendant Goldberg was appointed by Defendant Whitman and served as a temporary Board member during the period between August and December of 2000.*fn3 Defendant Arcineaco-Krueger was appointed by former Governor Whitman as a temporary Board member in June 2000, and served in that capacity until January 2001.*fn4 Plaintiffs Brown and Sonntag both had hearings before Parole Board panels that included temporary Board member Laurie Fuchs (Compl. ¶ 56-57). Plaintiffs assert that these hearings and the resulting decisions, along with all other Parole Board hearings for inmates with the participation of temporary board members, are illegal and invalid because they allegedly circumvent the requirements of the Parole Act, N.J.S.A. § 30:4-123.47 (Compl. ¶ 23). Both counsel for Plaintiffs and Defendants agree that the Parole Board, as currently constituted, is composed of legally appointed members.*fn5

Plaintiffs allege that Parole Board meetings with the participation of temporary Board members are illegal and invalid under New Jersey law, and thus constitute violations of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. According to Plaintiffs, these alleged violations of state law deprived them of their civil rights and constituted deprivation of life, liberty and property, as well as arbitrary and capricious punishment, without due process of law *fn6 (Compl. ¶ 69).

Plaintiffs seek, on behalf of themselves and the class, declaratory and injunctive relief declaring null and void Parole Board decisions that involved the participation of temporary Board members, and requiring new panel hearings for all those incarcerated as a result of decisions by a panel with the participation of a temporary Parole Board member (Compl. ¶ 79). Plaintiffs also seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as costs and attorneys' fees.

Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants now move to dismiss the Complaint for various reasons, including the argument that the Parole Board Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.

II. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits a court to dismiss a complaint that fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court accepts as true all of the factual allegations within the complaint and any reasonable inferences that may be drawn from them. Hayes v. Gross, 982 F.2d 104, 106 (3d Cir. 1992). Claims should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) where "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). Though a court must take as true all facts alleged, it may not "assume that the [plaintiff] can prove any facts that it has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Calif., Inc. v. Calif. State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). Further, on a 12(b)(6) motion, a court shall properly reject any "conclusory recitations of law" pled within the complaint. Commonwealth of Penn. v. PepsiCo, Inc., 836 F.2d 173, 179 (3d Cir. 1988); see Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (noting that "a court need not credit a complaint's `bald assertions' or `legal conclusions' when deciding a motion to dismiss").

Accordingly, a district court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint has a limited role. In performing that role, the court determines not "whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail," but "whether they are entitled to offer evidence to support their claims." Langford v. Atlantic City, 235 F.3d 845, 847 (3d Cir. 2000); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig. ("Burlington Coat"), 114 F.3d 1410, 1420 (3d Cir. 1997); Syncsort Inc. v. Sequential Software, Inc., 50 F. Supp.2d 318, 325 (D.N.J. 1999); In re MobileMedia Sec. Litig., 28 F. Supp.2d 901, 922 (D.N.J. 1998). Generally, the court's task requires it to disregard any material beyond the pleadings. Burlington Coat, 114 F.3d at 1426; Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). However, the court may take judicial notice of certain "integral" documents or facts in resolving a motion to dismiss. See In re NAHC Sec. Litig., 306 F.3d 1314, 1331 (3d Cir. 2002).

III. Doctrine of Qualified Immunity

The Third Circuit has ruled that parole board members are entitled to absolute immunity in their adjudicative functions, and qualified immunity for their activities in administrative functions. See Harper v. Jeffries, 808 F.2d 281, 284 (3d Cir. 1986). Under the governing principles of Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), the Court must determine, in a qualified immunity analysis, whether the Defendants violated a clearly established constitutional right. The first step in this analysis is to determine whether the facts "viewed in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, show that the [Defendants'] conduct violated a constitutional right." Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 277 (3d Cir. 2002).

The "clearly established" part of the analysis requires a finding that a reasonable defendant would understand that the conduct in question was unlawful. Curley, 298 F.3d at 277. Under the guidelines of Saucier, this inquiry must be undertaken "in light of the specific context of the case, not as a general proposition." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201. As the Third Circuit has recognized, "the existence of disputed historical facts material to the objective reasonableness of an officer's conduct will ...


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