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Eaton v. Tosti

June 4, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge



Dear Counsel:

Plaintiff Charles Eaton brings the instant action against a wide range of defendants, asserting a panoply of claims. In short, this is the story of an antique sale gone wrong. As a result, Plaintiff Eaton now brings suit against the seller of the antiques, the seller's family, three police officers, the Town of Newton, various John Doe entities, and "104 chattels." Several Defendants have filed motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). There was no oral argument. Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. For the reasons stated below, the motions to dismiss filed by the so-called "Family Defendants" and the "Newton Defendants" are GRANTED in their entirety.


While the factual allegations of the Complaint are notable due to their prolixity, a summary of the most relevant claims follows.*fn1 Plaintiff Charles Eaton owns an estate sale and antique business in Newton, New Jersey. Eaton brings the instant action against ten individuals. For ease of reference, the Court divides the ten defendants into two groups: the "Newton Defendants" and the "Family Defendants." The Newton Defendants are: the Town of Newton, Newton Police Chief John Tomasula, and Newton Police Detectives Thomas Tosti and Neil Casey. The "Family Defendants" are: Eren Brewer, the individual who sold Eaton the antiques; Kristen Schoener, Brewer's girlfriend; and, Susan Grande, Carlton Lowe, Carol Hard, and Diane Johnston, Brewer's family members.

After contacting Defendant Eren Brewer on the internet, Plaintiff bought several items from him, including a number of antique banks. In exchange for the goods purchased, Brewer accepted $2,250 plus a chair valued at $100. (Compl. ¶ 36.)

During their conversations leading up to the sale, Defendant Brewer purportedly told Eaton that he inherited the items from his grandmother. (Id. ¶ 13.)

After Plaintiff Eaton bought the items from Brewer, Eaton was contacted by Brewer's family. These family members informed Eaton that the items he purchased were stolen from the home of Defendants Grande and Lowe. (Id. ¶ 51.) Brewer's mother, Defendant Carol Hard, allegedly told Eaton that Brewer was a drug addict and may have sold the stolen items for drug money. (Id. ¶ 57.) The family asked for the items back and offered to make Eaton whole. (Id. ¶ 85.) After this, Plaintiff Eaton did some research into Brewer and his family members. Learning that Brewer was a nurse and that Defendants Grande and Lowe -- Brewer's aunt and her companion -- had a home health care business, Plaintiff Eaton concluded that Grande and Lowe were fabricating their right to the antiques. (Id. ¶¶ 66-72.) Eaton states in his complaint that he suspected that Defendants Hard, Grande, and Lowe had stolen the antiques from their nursing home clients and had sent Brewer "out to the marketplace to fence the chattels." (Compl. ¶ 71.) When Brewer did not get enough money for the items, Eaton surmised that his family invented the story about Brewer's drug addiction and the theft to bamboozle Eaton into rescinding the sale. (Id. ¶¶ 70-72.)

Plaintiff Eaton then contacted the police, and Defendants Tosti and Casey -- members of the Newton Police Department -- came to Eaton's antique store to view the items. Eaton purportedly advised Tosti and Casey of his "concerns" regarding Brewer's family and the stolen antiques. (Id. ¶ 73.) Tosti and Casey then told him to hold on to the items until there was a reported crime. (Id. ¶ 76.)

In the interim, the family filed a loss report with the Medford, New Jersey police but held off on pressing charges against Brewer because they viewed him as a troubled young man. (Compl. Ex. K; ¶ 57.) After this report was filed, the police stopped by to ask Eaton to return the items, which he refused. (Compl. ¶ 95.) Instead of returning the items, Plaintiff then purportedly entered into a custody agreement with the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office (BCPO). (Compl. ¶ 106.) Plaintiff Eaton works in Newton, New Jersey -- in Sussex County -- but instead Eaton went to the BCPO, ostensibly because Defendant Brewer's family lives in Medford, New Jersey, located in Burlington County. The complaint states that this BCPO custody agreement allowed Eaton to keep the items on the condition he would turn them over to the BPO or the Medford Police for use in a criminal prosecution on demand. (Compl. ¶ 110.) This "custody agreement" was quickly repudiated by the Medford Police Department. (Compl. ¶ 126.)

After this "custody agreement" with the BCPO was finalized, Defendant Tosti again stopped by Eaton's store and allegedly demanded that the antiques be turned over to him. (Compl. ¶ 114.) Eaton again refused. Defendants Tosti and Casey then purportedly applied for a search warrant. (Compl. ¶ 134.) Superior Court Judge Edward Gannon signed the warrant, which was used by the Newton Police Department to search Eaton's store. (Compl. ¶ 153.) While the warrant contained a list of the items to be seized, it listed the wrong address for Eaton's store. (Compl. Ex. K; ¶¶ 158-159.)

As a result of the foregoing, Plaintiff brings a twenty-three count complaint, asserting various Section 1983, 1985, and 1986 claims against the Newton Defendants. Further, Plaintiff brings assorted common law claims against the Family Defendants. All Defendants -- except for Brewer, Johnston, and Schoener -- have filed motions to dismiss, which are presently before the Court.


A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

In evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court may consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and undisputedly authentic documents if the plaintiff's claims are based upon those documents. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). All allegations in the complaint must be taken as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975); Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998). This assumption of truth is inapplicable, however, to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations or to "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009).

Although a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiff's right to relief above a speculative level, such that it is "plausible on its face." See id. at 570; see also Umland v. PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc., 542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008). Furthermore, a claim has "facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement' ... it asks for more than a sheer possibility..." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (2009).

B. "Official Capacity" Claims

As an initial matter, Plaintiff brings claims against Defendants Tomasula, Casey, and Tosti in their "official capacities" as members of the Newton Police Department. For purposes of Section 1983, "a lawsuit against public officers in their official capacities is functionally a suit against the public entity that employs them." Cuvo v. De Biasi, 169 Fed. Appx. 688, 693 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing McMillian v. Monroe County, 520 U.S. 781, 785 n.2 (1997)). Because Eaton is suing the Town of Newton, the suit against the officers in their official capacities is redundant. Cuvo, 169 Fed. Appx. at 693; Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985). Since the complaint only asserts claims against Tomasula in his official capacity, Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against Tomasula may be dismissed on this basis alone. See, e.g., Young v. New Sewickley Twp., 160 Fed. Appx. 263 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kentucky v. Graham and affirming district court's dismissal of official capacity suit under 12(b)(6)); Lopez v. Maczko, 2007 WL 2461709 at *7 (E.D.Pa. Aug. 16, 2007) (dismissing Section 1983 claim against police commissioner because city was already named as defendant in suit). Further, any claims against Tosti and Casey in their official capacities likewise are dismissed.

C. Civil Rights Claims

Plaintiff Eaton brings seven civil rights claims against the Town of Newton ("Newton"), Chief Tomasula, and Detectives Casey and Tosti. These claims are asserted under Sections 1983, 1985, and 1986. Each Defendant now moves to dismiss all counts asserted against him for failure to state a claim.

1. Section 1983 -- First Amendment Retaliation Claim (Count One)

In Count One, Plaintiff asserts that Defendants Newton, Tomasula,*fn2 Casey, and Tosti abridged his right to "petition the Government for redress of grievances" under the First Amendment. To support this claim, Plaintiff cites to a series of allegations in his brief not pled in the body of the complaint, pertaining to "Casey and Tosti's illegal acquisition of a pair of antique Newton Police Department badges." (Pl.'s Br. 16.) Such allegations cannot be considered on a motion to dismiss, as they were not pled in the complaint. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp., 998 F.2d at 1196 ("In evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court may consider only ...

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