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Stolinski v. Pennypacker

December 4, 2008

GARY L. STOLINSKI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JAY PENNYPACKER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Gary L. Stolinski is a Sergeant with the New Jersey State Police. In 2005, he was indicted on charges of official misconduct, credit card fraud, and identity theft, which indictment he alleges was procured by the malicious conduct of the individual Defendants named herein. After the charges against Plaintiff were dismissed, he filed this action against the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Police Office of Professional Standards (the "OPS"), and four individual state police officers, alleging that Defendants violated his rights under the United States Constitution and New Jersey law.

Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss all claims asserted in the Complaint [Docket Item 21]. For the reasons explained below, the Court will convert this motion into one for summary judgment, as both parties have submitted documents and asked the Court to look beyond the face of the Complaint. The Court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claims against the State of New Jersey and the OPS, and will grant in part and deny in part the motion as to Plaintiff's claims against Sergeants Pennypacker and Rudderow and Lieutenants Hurley and Koshland (the "Individual Defendants"), as set forth in detail herein.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The facts, as they appear from the Complaint and from the documents the parties have submitted during the motion practice on this matter, are as follows. Plaintiff is a Sergeant with the New Jersey State Police, and held the same position at the time the events underlying this action transpired. (Compl. ¶ 3.) The Individual Defendants are employed by the State Police OPS. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-7.)

Between July 31, 2004 and August 25, 2004, Plaintiff attempted to apply online for an American Express credit card on behalf of a company called "GS Tickets" using his office computer. (Id. at ¶ 44; Defs.' Br. Ex. 2 at 1.) In the space on the online application which directs applicants to enter a Social Security Number, Plaintiff inserted the business tax identification number he had lawfully obtained on behalf of GS Tickets. (Compl. ¶ 44.)

Although the details of the events that transpired following Plaintiff's application are not entirely clear from the Complaint, it appears that the Individual Defendants launched a criminal investigation into Plaintiff's credit card application. (Id. at ¶ 21.) According to the Complaint, in the face of evidence demonstrating unequivocally that Plaintiff had legitimately used his company's business tax identification number on the application, and without probable cause, the Individual Defendants arrested Plaintiff, accusing him of having committed identity theft and of having applied for the credit card using a false identification. (Id. at ¶¶ 22, 44.) After a presentation before a grand jury that included the Individual Defendants' allegedly perjured testimony, (id. at ¶ 50), Plaintiff was indicted on July 15, 2005 on charges of official misconduct in the second degree, credit card fraud in the fourth degree, and identity theft in the third degree.*fn1 (Defs.' Br. Ex. 2 at 1-4.) In Count Three of the indictment, Plaintiff was charged with having obtain[ed] the personal identifying information of . . . persons known to the grand jurors as L.G. and/or T.M., in order to assume the identity of L.G. and/or T.M., or represent himself as L.G. and/or T.M., without the authorization of L.G. and T.M., with the purpose to fraudulently obtain or attempt to obtain . . . American Express credit cards . . .

(Id. at 4.) Three days after he was indicted, on July 18, 2005, Plaintiff was suspended from work without pay. (Defs.' Br. Ex. 4 at 6.) Around this time, the Individual Defendants allegedly made knowingly false statements about Plaintiff "through various news mediums." (Compl. ¶¶ 17, 62.)

On December 2, 2005, the prosecutor, upon determining that Plaintiff had not, in fact, applied for the credit card using a false identity, moved for the dismissal of the indictment, (Defs.' Br. Ex. 8 at 1), and on December 12, 2005 -- nearly five months after Plaintiff was indicted -- all charges against him were dismissed. (Defs.' Br. Ex. 3 at 1.) Plaintiff was reinstated to his position on January 5, 2006. (Defs.' Br. Ex. 8 at 1.) Less than ninety days after the dismissal of the indictment, on March 9, 2006, Plaintiff submitted to the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety a tort claims notice form describing the indictment, its dismissal, and his ultimate reinstatement with the police force. (Id.) In the form, Plaintiff stated that the "indictment received statewide and regional media coverage and has caused the claimant embarrassment and damaged his reputation," and that he had experienced "pain, suffering and humiliation," as well as permanent "[l]oss of [e]steem." (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff also informed the State that he sought back pay for the period of suspension as a result of the dismissal of the criminal charges.*fn2 (Id.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on July 9, 2007, naming Sergeants Pennypacker and Rudderow, Lieutenants Hurley and Koshland,*fn3 the State of New Jersey and the OPS as Defendants. The Complaint asserts claims of malicious prosecution pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I), the New Jersey Constitution (Count V), and New Jersey common law (Count VI); defamation pursuant to § 1983 (Count II); false imprisonment under § 1983 (Count III) and New Jersey common law (Count XIV);*fn4 civil rights conspiracy under §§ 1983 and 1985 (Count IV); "unlawful custom, practice, & policy" under § 1983 (Count VII); "§ 1983 supervisory liability" (Count VIII); malicious abuse of process under § 1983 (Count IX) and New Jersey common law (Count X); invasion of privacy (Count XI); false light (Count XII); negligence (Count XIII); and respondeat superior liability (Count XV).

The Defendants subsequently sought leave to file an over-length brief, which the Court granted in its April 21, 2008 Order [Docket Item 22].*fn5 Thereafter, Defendants filed the motion to dismiss presently under consideration [Docket Item 21]. Both in the Defendants' motion to dismiss and in Plaintiff's opposition thereto, the parties submitted various documents and asked the Court to consider matters beyond the face of the Complaint. In a Letter Order dated November 13, 2008 [Docket Item 33], the Court informed the parties that it would convert the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 12(d), Fed. R. Civ. P.*fn6

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when the materials of record "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). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party; in other words, "the nonmoving party's evidence 'is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [that party's] favor.'" Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). 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." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 250; Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329-30 (3d Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

Although entitled to the benefit of all justifiable inferences from the evidence, "the nonmoving party may not, in the face of a showing of a lack of a genuine issue, withstand summary judgment by resting on mere allegations or denials in the pleadings; rather, that party must set forth 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial,' else summary judgment, 'if appropriate,' will be entered." United States v. Premises Known as 717 South Woodward Street, Allentown, Pa., 2 F.3d 529, 533 (3d Cir. 1993) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)) (citations omitted). As the Supreme Court has explained,

Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to any material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

B. Sovereign Immunity

As to Plaintiff's section 1983 and 1985 claims, Defendants argue, and the Court agrees, that the State, the OPS, and the Individual Defendants in their official capacities are immune from suit in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment, and that Plaintiff's federal claims against these Defendants must accordingly be dismissed. As this Court recently explained:

Under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, an unconsenting state is immune from suit in federal court filed by one of its own citizens, irrespective of the type of relief sought. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99-100, (1984). It is well-recognized that although the Eleventh Amendment refers only to "State[s]," U.S. Const. amend. XI, such immunity extends to state agencies like the [OPS]. See Regents of the Univ. of California v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (1997) . . . . It is, moreover, black-letter law that while Congress may abrogate a state's sovereign immunity under certain circumstances, it did not do so when enacting 42 U.S.C. § 1983 . . . [or § 1985.] See, e.g., Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64 (1989) (noting that "a State is not a person within the meaning of § 1983"); Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 345 (1979).

Pappas v. Township of Galloway, 565 F. Supp. 2d 581, 586-87 (D.N.J. 2008) (footnote omitted).

Plaintiff's official-capacity claims against the Individual Defendants pursuant to sections 1983 and 1985 must likewise be dismissed. Such claims, when filed against state employees in their official capacities, "should be treated as suits against the State," Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991), and are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Pennhurst, 465 U.S. at 101 n.11; see also Will, 491 U.S. at 71 ("a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office"). While the Court may entertain claims for injunctive relief against state officers in their official capacities, see Pennhurst, 465 U.S. at 101 n.10, there is no claim for injunctive relief in this case.

The Court will accordingly grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the claims asserted in Counts I, II, III, IV, VII, VIII, and IX against the State, the OPS, and the Individual Defendants in their official capacities.

C. Tort Claims Act

1. Tort Claims ...


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