January 13, 2010
RYAN ANDREW BROWN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
PARKING AUTHORITY OF THE CITY OF JERSEY CITY,*FN1 CITY OF JERSEY CITY, RITA TAYLOR, JOHN LUISI, SHARON HARRINGTON, SHEILA A. VENABLE, MAURICE GALLIPOLI, FERNANDO PICARIELLO, MARIA FIGUEROA, MARK D. RUSS, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND WENDY WALKER, JERRAMIAH T. HEALY AND COUNTY OF HUDSON, DEFENDANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-3946-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 7, 2009
Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.
Plaintiff appeals from the dismissal of his complaint against various public entities and public officials arising out of the mistaken issuance to plaintiff of a parking ticket in Jersey City. Plaintiff brought the complaint under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, contending that defendants violated his constitutional rights. More particularly, he alleged that the suspension of his driver's license constituted an unlawful seizure, and that he was deprived of his due process and equal protection rights. In a written decision, Judge Wertheimer held that defendants were entitled to dismissal of the complaint under principles of qualified immunity. He reasoned as follows:
Plaintiff's claim arises under 42 U.S.C.A. 1983 (Section 1983), which provides in pertinent part:
Every person who, under the color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured.
Essentially, Section 1983 provides a cause of action for a person who has been deprived of his or her well-established federal constitutional or statutory rights by any person acting under the color of state law. Gomez v. Toldeo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980). Therefore, in order to establish a claim under Section 1983, plaintiff must first establish that his or her well-established federal constitutional or statutory rights have been violated. If this is established, plaintiff must prove a reasonable person would have known that the government official's actions violated plaintiff's constitutional rights. Schneider, Jr. v. Simoni et al., 163 N.J. 336, 354 (2000).
Assuming arguendo that the parking ticket was incorrectly issued, there is no "well-established federal constitutional or statutory right" to be free from the occasional incorrectly issued parking ticket. Plaintiff does not point to any law establishing such a right. Plaintiff's only claim against the Parking Authority defendants is that they incorrectly issued a ticket. This is clearly not a constitutional violation and, therefore, plaintiff's Section 1983 claims [against] the Parking Authority defendants are DISMISSED.
Additionally, to sustain a claim under Section 1983, plaintiff must prove that "a reasonable person would have known that the government official's actions violated plaintiff's constitutional rights." Schneider, Jr. v. Simoni et al., 163 N.J. 336, 354 (2000). Although plaintiff has pleaded detailed factual allegations, he has not alleged any personal involvement by any of the individual defendants. Plaintiff makes the bare assertion that the defendants acted in concert to adopt an informal policy where the municipal court is permitted to request restoration of licenses and fees under the presumption of "error." However, there are no specific allegations of wrongdoing. This is not a sufficient basis to bring a Section 1983 cause of action. As this is the only accusation leveled against the State and Jersey City defendants, the Section 1983 claims against them are DISMISSED.
In his opinion, the judge also rejected plaintiff's contention that default judgment should be entered against defendants for failure to timely file their responsive pleadings, and he accordingly denied plaintiff's motion for default judgment.
Plaintiff argues that (1) the judge erred by failing to address his arguments under the Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3; (2) the judge erred in concluding that plaintiff was not entitled to relief under Section 1983; (3) the judge erred by failing to address plaintiff's claims of an unlawful seizure and violation of his due process and equal protection rights; (4) the judge erred in denying his motion for default judgment; and (5) the judge viewed his complaint with prejudice by not addressing the many legal and constitutional questions presented. Plaintiff's arguments lack sufficient merit to warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Wertheimer in his written decision of December 19, 2008. We nevertheless set forth a brief factual summary and add a few comments on the controlling legal principles.
On July 24, 2007, one of the named defendants, a parking enforcement officer of the Parking Authority of the City of Jersey City, issued a parking ticket to plaintiff. Plaintiff was not in Jersey City on July 24, 2007, and the vehicle he owned did not match the description of the vehicle for which the summons was issued.
Plaintiff claims he first became aware of the summons on October 12, 2007, when he received a notification by mail from the Jersey City Municipal Court that he had failed to enter a plea to the summons, and that, as a result, suspension of his driving privileges would be ordered. Plaintiff contacted municipal court personnel and sent in a plea of not guilty by mail, along with his defense that he was not in Jersey City on the date of the summons and that his vehicle did not match that described in the summons.
Notwithstanding this submission by plaintiff, he received a notice dated November 3, 2007 from the municipal court advising that his driver's license was being suspended because of his failure to pay the fines and penalties assessed for the parking violation. The record reflects that the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) suspended plaintiff's license as of November 8, 2007. Plaintiff contacted the municipal court, and, following the advice he received, he appeared in the municipal court on November 14, 2007, at which time the summons was dismissed. On November 14, 2007, the municipal court issued a notice to MVC, Bureau of Suspensions & Restorations, advising that its previous request to suspend plaintiff's license was sent in error. The notice requested removal of the suspension and waiver of any restoration fee. Plaintiff's license was immediately restored.
Based upon these events, plaintiff sent TCA notices to various prospective defendants and filed this action, in which he claimed emotional and psychological distress, loss of income, and loss of independence.
Before responsive pleadings were filed, some defendants filed a notice of removal to the United States District Court. On August 28, 2008, Chief Judge Garrett E. Brown, Jr. remanded the matter to state court. Defendants promptly filed motions for dismissal for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted. The complaint had been originally filed in Ocean County, but venue was transferred to Union County. Judge Wertheimer granted defendants' dismissal motions and denied plaintiff's motion for default judgment.
The Section 1983 claims were properly dismissed. Government officials are entitled to "qualified immunity" from liability under this section while performing discretionary functions "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed. 2d 396, 410 (1982). This standard "should avoid excessive disruption of government and permit the resolution of many insubstantial claims on summary judgment." Ibid. Therefore, the issue of qualified immunity should be resolved "at the earliest possible stage in litigation." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227, 112 S.Ct. 534, 536, 116 L.Ed. 2d 589, 595 (1991). We are satisfied that the trial judge correctly applied these principles with respect to the individual defendants.
With respect to the public entities, Section 1983 liability can attach only where the infringement of rights "resulted from an official municipal policy or custom." Schneider v. Simonini, 163 N.J. 336, 371 (2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1146, 121 S.Ct. 1083, 148 L.Ed. 2d 959 (2001) (citing Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2037-38, 56 L.Ed. 2d 611, 638 (1978)). Liability against a public entity for failure to adequately train employees will be found only upon a showing of a "deliberate indifference" to the rights of the public. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389, 109 S.Ct. 1197, 1205, 103 L.Ed. 2d 412, 427 (1989). Only in such circumstances can such a shortcoming be properly characterized as a "policy or custom." Ibid.
The circumstances here do not satisfy the "deliberate indifference" standard. Liability on this theory may be found only if "the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need." Id. at 390, 109 S.Ct. at 1205, 103 L.Ed. 2d at 427. Plaintiff has provided no basis for meeting this standard. The claims against the public entities were properly dismissed.
Plaintiff's TCA arguments are equally lacking in merit. Public entities and public employees are immune from liability for injury caused by the suspension of a license. N.J.S.A. 59:2-5; N.J.S.A. 59:3-6. This immunity "is necessitated by the almost unlimited exposure to which public entities would otherwise be subjected if they were liable for the numerous occasions on which they issue, deny, suspend or revoke permits and licenses." 1972 Task Force Comment to N.J.S.A. 59:2-5. It is inevitable and unavoidable that with the millions of licensing transactions that occur each year, "mistakes, both judgmental and ministerial, will be made." Malloy v. State, 76 N.J. 515, 521 (1978). "The purpose of the immunity is to protect the licensing function and permit it to operate free from possible harassment and the threat of tort liability." Ibid. Thus, this immunity "is pervasive and applies to all phases of the licensing function, whether the governmental acts be classified as discretionary or ministerial." Id. at 520.
Further, public employees are immune from liability for the good faith execution or enforcement of any law. N.J.S.A. 59:3-3. There is nothing in this record to support a contention that the officer who mistakenly issued this parking ticket to plaintiff was not acting in good faith in enforcing the law.
It is plain to us that, under principles of sovereign immunity, as codified in the TCA, all of the defendants were immune from liability in this case.