United States District Court, D. New Jersey
August 17, 2005.
JAMÁAL ALLAH, Plaintiff,
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, et al. Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: STANLEY CHESLER, Magistrate Judge
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This case is unpublished as indicated by the issuing court.] OPINION
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on a Motion for Summary
Judgment by Defendants Ron Deligny, E. David Millard, and Jack
Steinhauer (docket entry # 58). The Court, having considered the
papers submitted by the parties, for the reasons set forth below,
and for good cause shown, denies Defendants' Motion.
I. BACKGROUND OF THE CASE
Plaintiff Allah was arrested in December 1999 after a police
officer observed him selling drugs. His car was searched and he
was subsequently charged with possession of a controlled
dangerous substance ("CDS"), possession of CDS with intent to
distribute, and distribution of CDS. In September 2000, Lakewood
police received a tip that Plaintiff was traveling by car with
crack cocaine. While following his vehicle, the officers observed
Plaintiff discard the cocaine from his window, of which 30 grams
was later recovered. Plaintiff was then charged with possession of CDS, possession with intent to distribute CDS,
possession with intent to distribute CDS in a school zone, and
eluding. Plaintiff was charged again with possession of CDS and
possession with intent to distribute CDS later that same month
when police conducted surveillance following a confidential
informant tip. At that time, Plaintiff was found with crack
cocaine in his sock.
In May 2001, Plaintiff entered into a negotiated plea agreement
with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. The State agreed to
dismiss the December 1999 indictment in its entirety, and two
counts under the early September 2000 indictment. Plaintiff pled
guilty to the remaining charges. He was sentenced on December 7,
2001, and consistent with his plea agreement he was sentenced to
a ten-year custodial term with a five-year period of parole
Four days after the sentencing, Plaintiff filed a motion for
reconsideration. In support of his motion, Plaintiff pointed to
indictments against two Lakewood police officers for their use of
excessive force against a citizen in July 2001. The officers were
charged with official misconduct, aggravated assault, false
swearing, falsifying records, hindering apprehension and
conspiracy. Further, Plaintiff alluded to being racially profiled
by these officers. He complained that his trial counsel had
failed to act on the indictments against these officers during
his case. Finally, Plaintiff requested transfer to a drug
Plaintiff's motion was denied without prejudice because it was
procedurally barred. The request for transfer to a drug
rehabilitation program was also denied. Plaintiff made another motion for reconsideration in January 2002. This request was also
Plaintiff appealed his conviction to the Superior Court of New
Jersey, Appellate Division, contending that the State violated
Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), by failing to reveal the
claims against some of his arresting officers. He asserted that
this information would have been helpful in his defense.
Plaintiff claimed this violation impaired the voluntariness of
his plea, and alleged misconduct on the part of the prosecutor's
office and its employees.
While this appeal was pending in state court, Plaintiff filed a
Complaint in this Court against various defendants. Certain
claims of that Complaint were dismissed by a Order from the Court
on or about January 14, 2003, and the Court granted Plaintiff
leave to file an Amended Complaint. (Docket at 3.) Plaintiff's
Amended Complaint seeks damages and injunctive relief pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of his rights under the
United States and New Jersey Constitutions. (Am. Compl. ¶ 1.)
Plaintiff asks this Court to find that Defendants violated his
"civil rights by racially/selectively profiling,
assaulting/beating, bring false criminal charges against and
official misconduct [sic]," and to "[d]eclare that defendants
actions violate[d] plaintiffs [sic] rights under the
Constitutions of New Jersey and the United States." (Id. at
9-10.) Plaintiff asserts he was beat "solely because he's African
American Muslim." (Id. at 10.) He alleges that the Defendants
"conspired in abridging and violating plaintiff's Civil Rights,
State and Federal Constitutional Rights as to falsely forge
documents and fabricate criminal charges to secure an illegal
conviction and incarceration [sic]." (Id. at 4-6.) Plaintiff
asks the Court to enjoin Defendants from "further violation of
plaintiff's Civil rights" and requests an award of $500,000 in
compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. (Id.) On or about December 2, 2003, this Court administratively
terminated Plaintiff's case pending the outcome of the state
court appeal. The matter was reopened at Plaintiff's request
following the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division's
decision to deny Plaintiff's appeal. Upon reopening the case, the
Court dismissed claims against Defendants Christine Todd Whitman
and John Farmer at Plaintiff's request. Subsequently, four of the
remaining seven named Defendants, E. David Millard, Ronald F.
Deligny, John Steinhauer, and Harold Van DeZilver filed a motion
for summary judgment. On or about March 29, 2005, this Court
granted in part and denied in part the that motion, dismissing
three of Plaintiff's four claims. Plaintiff's claim of excessive
force remained. The same Defendants now move for summary judgment
as to this claim.
II. SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION Heck and Rooker Feldman
Subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue concerning the
very power of the Court to entertain this action. The Court has a
continuing obligation to address the issue, even sua sponte, if
there is cause to believe the Court lacks such jurisdiction.
Desi's Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 420
(3d Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). Defendants argue that
Plaintiff's remaining claim is precluded by the Heck and
Rooker-Feldman Doctrines, denying this Court of subject matter
jurisdiction over the remaining claim.
Plaintiff filed his Amended Complaint on or about May 16, 2004.
In this pleading, Plaintiff alleges claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
("Section 1983") for violations of his "Constitutional and Civil
Rights." (Am. Compl. at 2.) In its March 29, 2005 Opinion and
Order, this Court articulated what it viewed as Plaintiff's four
alleged causes of action. The Court concluded that three of those claims were indeed precluded for a
lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Prosecutor Defendants
now argue that the Court should dismiss the remaining claim under
the same rationale.
The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine bars a state court losing party
from seeking appellate review in the federal courts and
circumscribes the appellate jurisdiction of the lower federal
courts. The Doctrine is based on "the well settled understanding
that the Supreme Court of the United States, and not the lower
federal courts, has jurisdiction to review a state court
decision." Parkview Assocs. Pshp. v. City of Lebanon,
225 F.3d 321, 324 (3d Cir. 2000). Rooker-Feldman bars a federal proceeding
when "entertaining the federal court claim would be the
equivalent of an appellate review" of the state judgment. FOCUS
v. Alleghany County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d
In short, "Rooker-Feldman applies . . . when in order to grant
the federal plaintiff the relief sought, the federal court must
determine that the state court judgment was erroneously entered
or must take action that would render that judgment ineffectual."
Id. In application, the Court must decline to hear a cause of
action "if the claim was `actually litigated' in state court
prior to the filing of the federal action . . . or if the claim
is inextricably intertwined with [the] state adjudication,
meaning that federal relief can only be predicated upon a
conviction that the state court was wrong." Desi's Pizza,
321 F.3d at 419 (citations omitted).
In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the Supreme Court
considered a Section 1983 claim by a prisoner seeking monetary
damages for the "unlawful, unreasonable, and arbitrary
investigation" leading to his arrest and for the use of "an
illegal and unlawful voice identification procedure" used at his
trial. He further sought relief for destruction of evidence he claimed could have "proved his innocence." 512 U.S. at 479. The
named defendants were the prosecutors and a police department
investigator involved with his case. Id. In affirming the
District Court's dismissal of the claims, the Supreme Court
announced the following rule:
In order to recover on damages for an allegedly
unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for
other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would
render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983
plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence
has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by
executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal
authorized to make such determination, or called into
question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of
habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages
bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence
that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable
under § 1983.
Id. at 486-87.
In the instant case, Plaintiff seeks damages, specifically
"[c]ompensatory damages of $500,000 against each defendant and
punitive damages of $500,000 against each defendant." (Am. Compl.
at 10.) Thus, if claims asserted by Plaintiff would "necessarily
imply the invalidity of his conviction," then they must be
dismissed under Heck. 512 U.S. at 486-87.
Defendants argue that because Plaintiff seeks remedy for a
constitutional violation, a verdict in his favor would
necessarily undermine his state court conviction. (Defs.' Brief
at 9.) This contention is ludicrous. There is simply no logical
or legal argument that would allow a court to conclude that a
lawful conviction for drug possession would be called into
question by a finding that excessive force was unlawfully used at
the time of arrest. Indeed, none of the cases cited by Defendants
say as much. See e.g., State v. Gaffey, 92 N.J. 374, 389
(1983) (adequate time elapsed during which the defendant had been
institutionalized and remained unfit to be tried); Barker v.
Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972) (right to speedy trial); State v.
Tropea, 78 N.J. 309 (1978) (state failed to prove essential
element of the offense). Not only do Defendants fail to provide case law holding that a successful excessive force claim
will invalidate a conviction, the cases they do cite are not even
Defendants assert, "This case presents exactly such a
[constitutional] issue, for though not explicitly articulated in
his Complaint, Plaintiff is in essence claiming that his
constitutional rights were violated by the arresting officers'
use of excessive force upon him." (Defs.' Br. at 10.) Strangely,
Defendants then undertake analysis as if Plaintiff's claim
challenged the validity of the search at his arrest. Defendants
point out that excessive force claims are analyzed under the
Fourth Amendment, Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989),
and therefore, they contend that Plaintiff's cause of action of
the unlawful use of excessive force necessarily challenges the
search leading to evidence used against him. Defendants argue
that suppression of this evidence "would have eliminated any
possibility of the State proving its case" and the evidence was
"vital to the State being able to successfully prosecute
Plaintiff." (Defs' Br. at 10, 12.) This argument is nonsensical.
Simply because a claim asserting the unlawful use of excessive
force is analyzed under the Fourth Amendment does not convert
that claim into one for an unlawful search. In its previous
Opinion, this Court clarified Plaintiff's claim for the parties
based upon the language in the Amended Complaint: "Defendants . . .
violated plaintiff's constitutional rights and civil rights by
physically beating him, caused by defendants deliberate abuse and
excessive use of force by beating plaintiff up after handcuffed."
(Am. Compl. at 9.) No where in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint does
he challenge the search or any search. Therefore, when Defendants
argue that "the unlawful search of Plaintiff would have led to
the suppression of evidence used against [him], and would have
eliminated any possibility of the State proving its case,"
(Defs.' Br. at 10.), they assert a legal reality which is not at all relevant to
the instant claim or the Court's consideration of the instant
In short, this Court is unconvinced and unimpressed by
Defendants' argument that Plaintiff's cause of action for the
unlawful use of excessive force is precluded by either the Heck
or Rooker Feldman doctrines. Defendants' brief reads as if it
is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, and the
resulting argument is (not surprisingly) garble. The Plaintiff's
underlying state conviction was for drug possession. It is
entirely possible for Plaintiff to be guilty of this offense, as
he so pled, while also finding that excessive force was
unlawfully used in his arrest. Neither the Heck Doctrine nor
the Rooker Feldman Doctrine preclude his claim in Federal
III. SUMMARY JUDGMENT Absolute Immunity
Having determined that this Court does indeed have subject
matter jurisdiction to consider Plaintiff's remaining claim, the
Court turns to Defendants' alternative argument of absolute
A. Standard of Review
A party seeking summary judgment must "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 also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322
(1986); Orson, Inc. v. Miramax Film Corp., 79 F.3d 1358, 1366
(3d Cir. 1996). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of
material fact, the Court must view the underlying facts and draw
all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,
475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Pennsylvania Coal Ass'n v. Babbitt,
63 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1995). 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." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250
Once the moving party has properly supported its showing of no
triable issue of fact and of an entitlement to judgment as a
matter of law, the non-moving party "must do more than simply
show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts."
Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; see also Anderson,
477 U.S. at 247-48. The non-moving party must "go beyond the pleadings and
by [its] own affidavits, or by the `depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate `specific
facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'"
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N.
Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992) ("to raise a
genuine issue of material fact . . . the [non-moving party] need
not match, item for item, each piece of evidence proffered by the
movant," but rather "must exceed the `mere scintilla'
threshold"), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 912 (1993).
b. Absolute Immunity
Absolute immunity exists for those officers who perform
judicial or quasi-judicial function. Imbler v. Pachtman,
424 U.S. 409, 420 (1976). Prosecutors are absolutely immune from
liability for their conduct in "initiating a prosecution and
presenting the State's case" insofar as that conduct is
"intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal
process." Id. at 430-32. Other officers, such as investigators,
enjoy qualified immunity for their discretionary function.
Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 340 (1986).
Defendants Millard and DeLigny argue that as prosecutors at the
time of the action in question, they enjoy absolutely immunity.
They assert that "even assuming all Plaintiff's allegations to be true . . . [they] are absolutely immune from
liability, as a matter of law." (Defs.' Br. at 17.) In support of
this argument, Defendants cite several examples of prosecutorial
conduct which has fallen under the protection of absolute
immunity, such as deciding whether to seek an indictment,
preparing for a grand jury trial, and presenting evidence at a
probable cause hearing. (Defs.' Br. at 16.) Defendants then
proceed to defend their conduct in this case by pointing to
arguments made in Plaintiff's previous summary judgment
opposition papers in which he asserted that Defendants did not
"look into" or investigate his previous assault complaints.
(Defs.' Br. at 17.) Defendants suggest that based upon these
assertions, their decision not to pursue Plaintiff's complaints
of misconduct fall within their prosecutorial duties.
Defendants miss the point and once again argue claims that do
not exist in this matter. The cause of action asserted in
Plaintiff's Amended Complaint and the one which Defendants need
to defend is that of the unlawful use of excessive force.
Plaintiff's arguments submitted in previous motion practice do
not and cannot create a new cause of action in this case.
The Court will not determine today whether or not absolute
immunity applies to Defendants Millard and DeLigny. Indeed, the
Court is unable to consider this argument as Defendants proffer
no evidence that would allow the Court to conclude their role and
involvement in this case was only in their judicial or
quasi-judicial role. Defendants' exhibits are previous court
opinions and orders, briefs from previous motion practice, and
the Amended Complaint. The record provided is void of affidavits,
or other evidentiary materials, which would provide this court
with a factual basis to conclude Defendants Millard and DeLigny's
involvement in this case was within their judicial or
quasi-judicial roles. Defendants state "No material issue of fact
exists here." (Defs.' Br. at 17.) While that may be true, summary
judgment requires that Defendants properly support a showing of no triable
issues of fact. Defendants proffered papers fail to meet this
burden. Therefore, the Court is unable to consider Defendants'
argument for absolute immunity.
III. AMENDED COMPLAINT Timing
As a last resort, Defendants invite this Court to dismiss
Plaintiff's final cause of action for a failure to file the
Amended Complaint in the time permitted. This argument is
identical to the one brought in Defendants' previous motion for
summary judgment. Defendants argued then, and they argue again
now, that Plaintiff failed to comply with the Court's order to
file his Amended Complaint within 45 days of a January 8, 2003
Order. In the previous motion practice, Plaintiff pointed to a
March 24, 2003 Order issued by Magistrate Judge Hughes (docket
entry 7). In that Order, the Court granted Plaintiff additional
time to file. Defendants' letter brief dated January 31, 2005,
"concede[d] this issue in light of the Court's Order." (Docket
item #52, fn.2.) As such, the Court is surprised to see this
argument brought by these same Defendants once again and will
dismiss it for obvious reasons.
For the reasons stated above, and for good cause shown, the
Court denies Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. An
appropriate form of order will be filed herewith.