On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, L-3034-00.
Before Judges Kestin, Winkelstein and Lario.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Winkelstein, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
When four Woodridge Township (the Township) police officers responded to a domestic violence call at the home of Pius Ehiri and his wife, Patricia Uwaneme, an altercation ensued. As a result, Ehiri was indicted by a Middlesex County grand jury for fourth-degree resisting arrest, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a; third-degree aggravated assault on a police officer, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b; and second-degree disarming a law enforcement officer, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-11a; Uwaneme was indicted for fourth-degree obstructing the administration of law or other government function, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1a. Following a jury trial (the criminal trial), Ehiri was convicted of fourth-degree resisting arrest and acquitted of the remaining charges. The charges against Uwaneme were dismissed after she completed a pretrial intervention program. See R. 3:28.
Officer Robert Ptaszynski, and his wife, per quod, filed a civil suit against Ehiri seeking damages as a result of injuries Ptaszynski sustained in the altercation, which required siX months of physical therapy. He missed two weeks of work and was placed on light duty for four months. The claim settled for $32,500.
Ehiri and Uwaneme filed a third-party complaint against Ptaszynski; the other officers who responded to the call:
Jeffrey Olah, Frank Salsano, and Joseph Kapinos; and the Township and its police department. Plaintiffs alleged assault and battery; wrongful arrest; malicious prosecution; violations of 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988; and violations of the New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42 (LAD). Prior to the civil trial, the judge dismissed the majority of plaintiffs' claims, including the intentional tort claims against the individual police officers, on summary judgment. On motion after plaintiffs completed their case, the court dismissed plaintiffs' remaining claims against the Township. The jury returned a verdict for defendants Salsano and Kapinos on plaintiffs' § 1983 claims, and after the jury could not reach a verdict on the § 1983 claims against Olah and Ptaszynski, the judge dismissed those claims. With the exception of the dismissal of the LAD and intentional tort claims, we affirm.
Dismissing the LAD claims on summary judgment, the judge reasoned that neither the police officers nor the police station was a place of"public accommodation" within the meaning of the LAD, and consequently, the LAD was not applicable to the officers' conduct. We reverse on that issue because we conclude that a municipal police department and the individual officers qualify as a"place of public accommodation" to support an LAD claim.
Following are the facts, developed primarily during the civil trial. On July 16, 1999, at approximately 8:27 p.m., a dispatcher with the Township police department received a 9-1-1 call from plaintiffs' home in Woodbridge, during which a"hysterical and sobbing" female, presumably Uwaneme, reported that her husband had struck her, one of her children had a bloody nose, and the other"had vomit all over [her]." Olah and Salsano were dispatched to investigate; Kapinos and Ptaszynski were sent as backups.
Upon arrival, Olah and Salsano heard"a loud argument coming from inside the house." When questioned by the officers, Ehiri admitted that he and Uwaneme had been arguing. Ehiri, who is of Nigerian origin, said he and Uwaneme had been given a bottle of alcohol as a gift and Uwaneme gave it away. Because under Nigerian custom it is considered bad manners to give away a gift, Ehiri asked his wife to replace the bottle, which she did not do, so he asked her to"leave the house."
Ehiri denied striking Uwaneme. Uwaneme also testified that Ehiri had not struck her; she claimed she had called 9-1-1 solely because Ehiri had ordered her out of the house. The parties' son, Allen, then approximately six years old, said he had never seen his father hit his mother; the police report indicated that Allen had observed"his father shove his mother and knock her down."
According to Ehiri, Olah and Salsano knocked on the screen door, and rushed in as he opened it. Ehiri maintained that at that point, Karen, his three-year-old daughter, vomited on him. He also said Allen did not have a bloody nose when the police arrived; rather, he had a small amount of dried blood on his nose from an earlier bloody nose.
After speaking to Uwaneme, Salsano escorted Ehiri, who was wearing boxer shorts, to the bedroom to change. At that point, according to Ehiri, Uwaneme became upset and asked the officers not to arrest Ehiri, but instead to"just calm him down." Ehiri claimed that Olah commented that if it was"left to him... he [would] knock all [of Ehiri's] front teeth out," at which point Salsano hit him in the head with an object later described as a police radio, knocking him unconscious. Salsano denied hitting Ehiri.
Ehiri testified that when he regained consciousness, he was handcuffed, and Olah and Salsano were beating him with a"stick." Ehiri said the officers then threw him against the wall; he called for his wife, screaming,"the police are killing me." Salsano and Olah then sprayed Ehiri in the face with pepper spray, and"bounced" him into the wall. Ehiri said Olah choked him with a nightstick, taunting,"nigger [we] can kill you now." The officers again"bounced" Ehiri against the wall, kicked and beat him. Ehiri denied pushing, striking, or wrestling with the officers. Karen testified that she recalled seeing an officer"push my dad inside the wall."
According to Uwaneme, when Ptaszynski and Kapinos arrived at the residence, they ran into the bedroom, and joined in the melee. She said she tried to call for help, but Ptaszynski grabbed the phone away from her. When she ran to the back door, Ptaszynski pulled her ...