United States District Court, D. New Jersey
August 8, 2005.
WILLIAM DONOVAN, Plaintiff,
TOWNSHIP OF MILLBURN, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: DICKINSON DEBEVOISE, Senior District Judge
Plaintiff William Donovan seeks to bring this action in
forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915.*fn1 Based
on Plaintiff's affidavit of poverty, this Court grants
Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis and
directs the Clerk to file the Complaint. Having thoroughly
reviewed Plaintiff's allegations, the Court finds that the
Complaint, as written, fails to state a federal claim upon which
relief may be granted. The Court grants Plaintiff 45 days leave
to file an amended complaint. If an amended complaint is not
filed within 45 days, then without further notice, the Court will
enter an order dismissing the Complaint in its entirety for
failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). I. BACKGROUND
Plaintiff asserts violations of his constitutional rights
against the Township of Millburn, New Jersey, and the Millburn
Police Department. He alleges the following facts which the Court
views as true for the purpose of this review. Plaintiff asserts
that unnamed Millburn police officers falsely arrested him based
on his wife's lies. He states that the charges were dismissed the
third time he appeared in court. He alleges that, although his
wife committed various crimes, the Millburn Police Department
would not arrest her or charge her. He asserts that police
officers colluded with his wife to violate his rights and tamper
with his business and tax forms. Plaintiff seeks damages for
violation of his rights.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
The in forma pauperis statute, as amended by the Prison
Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Pub.L. No. 104-134, §§ 801-810,
110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996), requires the
Court, prior to docketing or as soon as practicable after
docketing, to review a complaint in a civil action in which a
plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis. See
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The PLRA requires the Court to sua sponte
dismiss any claim if the Court determines that it is frivolous,
malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted,
or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such
A pro se complaint is held to less stringent standards than
formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Haines v. Kerner,
404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). A claim is frivolous if it "lacks even an
arguable basis in law" or its factual allegations describe
"fantastic or delusional scenarios." Neitzke v. Williams,
490 U.S. 319, 328 (1989); see also Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192,
194 (3d Cir. 1990). "Given the Federal Rules' simplified standard
for pleading, `[a] court may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted
under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the
allegations.'" Swierkiewicz v. Soreman, 534 U.S. 506, 514
(2002) (quoting Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. See
Mansfield, C. & L.M. Ry. Co. v. Swan, 111 U.S. 379, 383 (1884).
As the Supreme Court stated in Bender v. Williamsport Area
School Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 (1986),
it is appropriate to restate certain basic principles
that limit the power of every federal court. Federal
courts are not courts of general jurisdiction; they
have only the power that is authorized by Article III
of the Constitution and the statutes enacted by
Congress pursuant thereto.
Id. at 541.
Article III of the Constitution provides:
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law
and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws
of the United States, and Treaties made, or which
shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases
affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and
Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime
Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the
United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between
two or more States; between a State and Citizens of
another State; between Citizens of different
States; between Citizens of the same State claiming
Lands under Grants of different States, and between a
State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States,
Citizens or Subjects.
U.S. Const. art. III, § 2.
The essential facts establishing federal jurisdiction must
appear on the face of the complaint. See McNutt v. General
Motors Acceptance Corp. of Indiana, 298 U.S. 178, 182, 189
(1936). The plaintiff "who claims that the power of the court
should be exerted in his behalf . . . must carry throughout the litigation the burden of showing that
he is properly in court." Id. at 189. Moreover, lack of subject
matter jurisdiction may be raised by the Court sua sponte at
any time. Bender, 475 U.S. at 541; Louisville & Nashville
Railroad Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 152 (1908); Van Holt v.
Liberty Mutual Fire Ins. Co., 163 F.3d 161, 166 (3d Cir. 1998).
A district court may exercise jurisdiction over "Cases, in Law
and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the
United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under
their authority." U.S. Const. art. III., § 2; see also
28 U.S.C. § 1331. Specifically, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 authorizes a person
to seek redress for a violation of his or her federal rights by a
person who was acting under color of state law. Section 1983
provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State
or Territory . . . 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.
42 U.S.C. § 1983.
To recover under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must show two
elements: (1) a person deprived him or caused him to be deprived
of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the
United States, and (2) the deprivation was done under color of state
law.*fn2 See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co.,
398 U.S. 144, 152 (1970); Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1107 (3d Cir.
"When evaluating a claim brought under § 1983, [a court] must
first `identify the exact contours of the underlying right said
to have been violated' in order to determine `whether [plaintiff]
has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all."
Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575,
581 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting County of Sacramento v. Lewis,
523 U.S. 833, 841 n. 5 (1998)). If so, the court determines whether
the defendant can be held liable for that violation. Natale,
318 F.3d at 581; Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 275
(3d Cir. 2000).
The Court liberally construes the instant Complaint as seeking
damages for arrest without probable cause in violation of the
Fourth Amendment, applicable to States through the
Fourteenth Amendment, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn3 The Fourth Amendment
provides in relevant part: "The right of the people to be secure
in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no
Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." U.S. Const.
amend IV. The Fourth Amendment prohibits a police officer from seizing
a citizen except upon probable cause.*fn4 See Albright v.
Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 274-75 (1994); Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 483
(3d Cir. 1995). As the Third Circuit observed,
Whether [an] arrest [is] constitutionally valid
depends in turn upon whether, at the moment the
arrest was made, the officers had probable cause to
make it whether at that moment the facts and
circumstances within their 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
United States v. Kithcart, 134 F.3d 529
, 531 (3d Cir. 1998)
(quoting Beck, 379 U.S. at 91); see also Mosley v.
Wilson, 102 F.3d 85
, 94-5 (3d Cir. 1996).
Plaintiff asserts the following facts in regard to his arrest:
False arrest in 2003 based on planned lies by wife
(caught on audio tape) charges thrown out on motion.
Even my justice was tampered with up until 3rd time
in court only was I allowed to speak. Then she was
told about her mountain of lies.
(Compl ¶ 1.)
The Complaint, as written, does not set forth facts sufficient
to assert a claim under § 1983 for an arrest in violation of the
Fourth Amendment. If his wife's false statements to the police
provided "reasonably trustworthy information . . . sufficient to
warrant a prudent man in believing that [Plaintiff] had committed
or was committing an offense," then the arrest did not violate
the Fourth Amendment, even though a judge later dismissed the
charges.*fn5 On the other hand, if the wife's statements to
police did not provide probable cause, then Plaintiff may be able
to establish a Fourth Amendment claim under § 1983. Moreover, Plaintiff does not name the individual police
officers as defendants but names only the Township of Millburn
and the Millburn Police Department. Since the Millburn Police
Department is not an entity subject to suit under § 1983 separate
from the Township itself, the Court construes the Township of
Millburn as the sole Defendant. However, a local government
entity "cannot be held liable solely because it employs a
tortfeasor." Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services,
436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). "[I]t is when execution of a
government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or
by those whose edicts and acts may fairly be said to represent
official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an
entity is responsible under § 1983."*fn6 Monell,
436 U.S. at 694.
In this case, nothing alleged in the Complaint supports an
inference that the alleged arrest resulted from the execution of
a policy or custom of the Township of Millburn. Because the facts
set forth in the Complaint do not state a cognizable federal
claim against the Township, the Complaint, as written, fails to
state a federal claim upon which relief may be granted.
Nevertheless, it is conceivable that Plaintiff may be able to
state a cognizable Fourth Amendment claim against the Township or
certain individuals by amending his Complaint. See Grayson v.
Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 110-111 (3d Cir. 2002)
(unless amendment would be futile, district court may not dismiss
complaint without permitting amendment). The Court will therefore
grant Plaintiff 45 days from the date of the entry of the Order
accompanying this Opinion to file an amended complaint.*fn7 If an amended
complaint is not filed within this time period, then without
further notice the Court will dismiss the action for failure to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court grants Plaintiff's
application to proceed in forma pauperis and grants
Plaintiff 45 days leave to file an amended complaint. If no
amended complaint is filed within 45 days of the date of the
entry of the Order accompanying this Opinion, then the Court will
enter an order dismissing the Complaint without further notice.