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Andros v. Gross

December 21, 2005

JAMES ANDROS, III, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NATURAL FATHER AND GUARDIAN OF MEGHAN ELIZABETH ANDROS AND ELIZABETH ANDROS, MINORS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ELLIOT M. GROSS, M.D., BRUCE K. DESHIELDS, ELADIO ORTIZ, JEFFREY BLITZ, ESQUIRE, MURRAY A. TALASNIK, ESQUIRE, HYDOW PARK, M.D., BARBARA FENTON, COUNTY OF ATLANTIC, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS.
JAMES ANDROS, III, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NATURAL FATHER AND GUARDIAN OF MEGHAN ELIZABETH ANDROS AND ELIZABETH ANDROS, MINORS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHRISTOPHER WELLMAN, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

On February 23, 2004, this Court issued a 76-page Opinion which considered, in depth, the viability of many of the claims in the thirty-seven count Complaint filed by Plaintiff James Andros, individually and on behalf of his minor children Meghan Elizabeth Andros and Elizabeth Andros.*fn1 By the accompanying Order, the Court, inter alia, granted the motions for summary judgment filed by Blitz, Talasnik, DeShields and Ortiz on the grounds of federal immunity.

Plaintiffs subsequently moved for partial reconsideration of the February 23, 2004 Opinion and Order as to the Court's probable cause determination. Additionally, Prosecutors Blitz and Talasnik, and Investigator DeShields (hereinafter "Defendants"), moved for dismissal and/or summary judgment on all remaining state law claims.*fn2 By Order date December 20, 2004, the Court permitted additional discovery and supplemental briefing.

Meanwhile, on December 3, 2004, Plaintiffs filed a complaint against Defendant Christopher Wellman almost identical to the original complaint. On December 21, 2004, the two actions were consolidated. On April 8, 2005, Wellman filed a motion for summary judgment.

Despite the considerable time available to Plaintiffs to take additional discovery, the factual landscape known to the Court at the time of its February 23, 2004 Opinion has remained largely unchanged. Accordingly, and for the reasons now stated, Plaintiff's motion for partial reconsideration will be denied, and the motions for summary judgment by Defendants Blitz, Talasnik, DeShields and Wellman will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

This matter stems from an incorrect March 2001 autopsy report in which Atlantic County Medical Examiner Elliot M. Gross, M.D. concluded that the sudden death of Plaintiff's 31-year old wife, Ellen Andros, was the result of "asphyxia due to suffocation." The autopsy report prompted a homicide investigation which uncovered evidence of great marital discord between Plaintiff and his wife, in which she was in fear for her life. Eventually, Plaintiff was arrested and indicted for one count of first degree murder.

Plaintiff was innocent, as the Prosecutor's Office learned during final preparations for Plaintiff's criminal trial in late 2002. Specifically, the Prosecutor's Office retained another pathologist, Donald Jason, M.D., to testify as an expert witness at trial. After he reviewed the evidence Dr. Jason concluded that Ellen Andros had died from a spontaneously dissecting coronary artery, a natural cause of death.*fn3 Dr. Gross, and his supervisor, Dr. Park, reviewed Dr. Gross's initial autopsy conclusion and, on December 3, 2002, indicated their agreement with Dr. Jason's conclusion -- Ellen Andros had died of natural causes. The indictment against Plaintiff was dismissed on the following day, December 4, 2002.

On April 22, 2003, Plaintiff filed the underlying action and, in the February 23, 2004 decision, the Court considered the viability of many of those claims in deciding the motions to dismiss filed by Gross, Park, Fenton, and the County of Atlantic, as well as the motion for summary judgment filed by Prosecutors Blitz and Talasnik, Investigators Ortiz and DeShields, and the State of New Jersey. Plaintiffs timely moved for partial reconsideration of that decision, and Defendants moved for summary judgment on all remaining state law claims. On April 8, 2005, Defendant Wellman moved for summary judgment.

The Court will treat with Plaintiffs' partial reconsideration motion first.

II. MOTION FOR PARTIAL RECONSIDERATION

A. Standard of Review

"A party seeking reconsideration must show more than a disagreement with the court's decision, and recapitulation of the cases and arguments considered by the court before rendering its original decision fails to carry the moving party's burden." Panna v. Firstrust Sav. Bank, 760 F. Supp. 432, 435 (D.N.J. 1991) (internal citations omitted); Local Civil Rule 7.1(i) . Instead, to justify relief on a motion for reconsideration, the moving party must show:

(1) an intervening change in the controlling law;

(2) the availability of new evidence that was not available when the court granted the motion for summary judgment; or

(3) the need to correct a clear error of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustice.

See Max's Seafood Café v. Quinteros, 176 F.3d 669, 677 (3d Cir. 1999).

"Motions for reargument succeed only where a dispositive factual matter or controlling decision of law was presented to the Court but not considered." Damiano v. Sony Music Entertainment, 975 F. Supp. 623, 634 (D.N.J. 1996) (quoting Pelham v. United States, 661 F. Supp 1063, 1065 (D.N.J. 1987)). Where no facts or cases were overlooked, the motion must be denied. Resorts Int'l v. Greate Bay Hotel & Casino, 830 F. Supp. 826, 831 (D.N.J. 1992). If the record was inadequately developed on a particular issue, the court has discretion to reconsider the matter, Hatco Corp. v. W.R. Grace Corp., 849 F. Supp. 987, 990 (D.N.J. 1994), but not to the extent of considering new evidence that was available but not submitted while the motion was pending. Florham Park Chevron, Inc. v. Chevron, USA, Inc., 680 F. Supp. 159, 162 (D.N.J. 1988).

B. Analysis

Plaintiffs assert, in the first instance, that this Court overlooked key evidence when it concluded that probable cause existed by April 6, 2001 to suspect Plaintiff of murdering his wife. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' argue, the Court must correct this "clear error" to "prevent manifest injustice." Additionally, Plaintiffs claim that the evidence uncovered through additional discovery demonstrated that there is a dispute of fact whether probable cause existed in April 2001. Plaintiffs, however, overstate what has been uncovered through additional discovery. For the reasons explained in the Court's February 23, 2004 Opinion, as well as in the discussion below, Plaintiffs' claims are, as they were before, without legal merit.

In its February 23, 2004 Opinion, the Court explained that "probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances are such that 'a reasonable person [would] believe that an offense has been . . . committed by the person to be arrested.' (Slip Op. at 56 (quoting Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 483 (3d Cir. 1995)). The Court then detailed the evidence which led it to conclude that, even viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, there was probable cause to suspect that Plaintiff had committed the crime on April 6, 2001:

Dr. Gross issued his conclusion that Ellen had died as a result of homicide on March 31, 2001, the date of her death. The prosecutors, though they may have immediately suspected plaintiff, did not have clear evidence that he committed the murder. They were faced with contradictory evidence, namely his story, which he consistently maintained, that he was at the Beach Bar & Grill throughout the night and did not know his wife was home, and his mother-in-law's initial reaction that he could have killed Ellen. Prosecutors surely had reason to continue their investigation into plaintiff's relationship with his wife, but they did not necessarily have probable cause to believe that he murdered his wife in the days immediately following her death.

By April 6, 2001, though, the landscape had changed and the defendants had probable cause to believe that plaintiff was guilty of the crime. By then, they had discovered that plaintiff's alibi was not tight. Though there was evidence that Ellen died between 2:00 and 2:30 a.m. and plaintiff claimed he was at the Beach Bar & Grill from 9:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m., no witness could testify that he was there the entire period. Instead, the witnesses provided a wide range of arrival and departure times, with plaintiff arriving somewhere between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. and leaving between 3:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. (See Kent Cert., Exs. 3-5, 26-28.)

Also by April 6, 2001, the prosecutors had Dr. Gross' supplemental report which again concluded that Ellen was a victim of homicide.*fn4 They had also learned by April 6th that plaintiff was estranged from his wife and had threatened to hurt her on several previous occasions. On April 6, 2003, Calvin Gadd verified reports by Sharon Hogan, Julie Goldberg, and Viola McElroy that Ellen wanted to leave plaintiff but was frightened of him because he had threatened to kill her with his gun and with his car, and because he was especially violent when intoxicated. (Clarke Cert., Ex. B.) That Ellen was found dead after her husband returned from a night of drinking, given his past threats toward her and his history of violence when intoxicated, strongly heightened these defendants' suspicions. The supplemental report, coupled with the other witness statements and evidence obtained between March 31 and April 6, 2001, provided probable cause to suspect plaintiff of the murder.

(Slip Op. at 56-58.)

The Court then explained that the exculpatory evidence available to the Defendants in April 2001 did not negate the ...


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