October 14, 2010
DOLORES BRADICICH, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
TOWNSHIP OF HANOVER, TOWNSHIP OF HANOVER POLICE DEPARTMENT, VIOLATIONS BUREAU, MUNICIPAL COURT JUDGE BRIAN O'TOOLE, SERGEANT ANTHONY VITANZA, DISPATCHER JOHN COLLORA, PATROLMAN JAMES GRAWEHR, PATROLMAN ROBERT CARPENTER, PATROLMAN DOMINIC KAISER, AND SERGEANT ZVOLENSKY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Docket No. L-3324-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 14, 2010
Before Judges Wefing and Payne.
Plaintiff appeals from a trial court order granting summary judgment to defendants. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
Plaintiff's pleadings and brief are somewhat disorganized, but from them we glean the following factual background; our recitation is not intended to be an exhaustive list of plaintiff's complaints and allegations but, rather, to survey the highlights.
Plaintiff alleged that on October 16, 2005, she was assaulted by a former boyfriend, and several days thereafter, she went to the Hanover Township Police Department to file a complaint against him. Defendant Collora was the dispatcher on duty. She contended that officers at police headquarters, defendants Grawehr and Zvolensky, treated her rudely and completed written reports falsely. Plaintiff asserted below that she went to the police to file an assault complaint, not to seek a restraining order against her former boyfriend. The officers on duty nevertheless contacted the municipal court judge, who, after speaking to plaintiff, declined to issue a restraining order against her former boyfriend.
She returned to the police headquarters on two successive days and was not able to obtain a copy of the police report that had been prepared and filed. Plaintiff states in her papers that she obtained a temporary restraining order the following day from a judge of the Superior Court; she has not provided a copy of that order although the table of contents to her appendix refers to it.
According to her brief, she was contacted in the middle of November by a man she had previously dated, whom she identifies only as "Michael." She said Michael left a message on her telephone answering machine threatening to kill her and her former boyfriend if he saw the boyfriend's truck at plaintiff's home. Michael, she said, also threatened to beat up friends of the former boyfriend.
After drinking a quantity of wine, plaintiff drove to the Hanover police station to deliver a tape recording of Michael's message, arriving around midnight. Defendant Collora was again the dispatcher on duty, and he informed her that there was no officer available to take her report, as all were out responding to other calls. She said she waited for approximately an hour and then went to her car to retrieve her cell phone and purse. She sat in the car with the motor running for another period of time, smoking a cigarette. She was approached by two officers, who, smelling alcohol on her breath, asked her to step out of the car. She refused to do so, despite repeated requests. Eventually, the two officers removed her from the car. She says they acted in a brutal manner and injured her. The trial court viewed a DVD recording of the incident recorded by one of the video cameras in one of the patrol cars and noted that it did not substantiate plaintiff's version of what had occurred. We have also reviewed that DVD and concur completely with the trial court's assessment. Plaintiff was then arrested for obstruction of justice, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1, and driving while intoxicated, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. A subsequent Alcotest produced a blood alcohol reading between .147 and .149.
Plaintiff alleges that several days after this incident, she had an encounter with another Superior Court judge who, she maintains, "advised" her to dismiss the temporary restraining order she had earlier obtained against her former boyfriend. This, she maintains, was the result of a communication from the municipal court judge who had originally denied her request for a temporary restraining order, seeking to influence the Superior Court judge against her. Plaintiff has provided no proof to support these allegations. She says she did dismiss the restraining order but did not do so voluntarily, but as a result of "coercion" from the Superior Court judge.
She later appeared before that same municipal court judge on the charge of driving while intoxicated and was convicted. She appealed that conviction to the Law Division, where she was again found guilty of driving while intoxicated. In her brief, she contends that the municipal court judge denigrated and insulted her during the municipal court proceedings. She has not provided a transcript against which we could measure her allegations.
Plaintiff also alleges that police officers subsequently broke into her home to read the medical records of her son, who, she said, was contemplating seeking a position on the Township's police force. She said some personal items were taken and some were moved. She said closet doors were damaged and bore the markings of black fingerprint dust. She also maintains that her computer was "compromised," that the police took the keys to her truck, that the municipal court judge tampered with her mail and other individuals stalked her.
Plaintiff also contends that she subsequently had a severe emotional breakdown and attempted to harm herself, as a result of which she spent several years in therapy. She has included in her appendix a report of a psychiatric evaluation performed in January 2006 that indicates a diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder.
She later filed suit, ultimately naming the Township of Hanover; the Hanover Police Department; the Violations Bureau; Hanover's municipal court judge; Patrolmen Grawehr, Carpenter, and Kaiser; Dispatcher Collora; Sergeant Vitanza; and Sergeant Zvolensky, all of the Hanover police force, as defendants.*fn1
Although it is difficult to discern her precise claims from her pleadings, we conclude that she attempted to assert claims based upon violations of the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, N.J.S.A. 52:4B-34 to -38, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, and tort claims involving negligence and infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted summary judgment to all defendants, and this appeal followed.
We turn first to the claims plaintiff has attempted to plead with respect to the municipal court judge, including her assertion that he violated her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution when he denied her request for a temporary restraining order, that he violated the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights by the manner in which she contends he treated her, that he committed official misconduct when he allegedly communicated his views of plaintiff to a Superior Court judge, that he tampered with her mail and violated various canons of judicial conduct.
We are satisfied that the trial court correctly granted summary judgment with respect to these claims. Both under statute, N.J.S.A. 59:3-2(b), and under common law, Malik v. Ruttenberg, 398 N.J. Super. 489, 495-96 (App. Div. 2008), the municipal court judge is entitled to absolute immunity for his actions. Judges enjoy absolute immunity for their judicial actions. Delbridge v. Schaeffer, 238 N.J. Super. 323, 333 (Law Div. 1989), aff'd o.b. sub nom. A.D. v. Franco, 297 N.J. 1, 6 (1993), certif. denied, 135 N.J. 467, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 832, 115 S.Ct. 108, 130 L.Ed. 2d 56 (1994). This principle is firmly embedded in our jurisprudence. "[N]o action will lie against a judge for any acts done or words spoken in his judicial capacity in a court of justice." Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 349 n.16, 20 L.Ed. 646, 650 (1872).*fn2
We are unable to determine the truth or falsity of plaintiff's allegations with respect to the municipal court judge. If the conduct alleged in fact occurred, her remedy must lie in filing a complaint with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, not in filing a complaint in a court of law.
Beyond the question of immunity, the municipal court judge would also be entitled to summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff's complaint was filed beyond the statute of limitations. N.J.S.A. 59:8-8(b) creates a two-year statute of limitations, computed from "accrual of claim" for any claims against a public entity or employee. There is also a general two-year statute of limitations for torts, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, and a two-year limitations period for claims under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. Freeman v. State, 347 N.J. Super. 11, 21-22 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 172 N.J. 178 (2002); 42 U.S.C.A. § 1988.
Plaintiff attempts to escape this bar by contending her suit was timely because it was filed within two years of the notice of claim she had filed. Plaintiff's argument misreads the statute. Her claim accrued at the time of the incidents of which she complains, not when she filed her notice of claim under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8.
Finally, with respect to the claim that the municipal court judge tampered with her mail, plaintiff simply presented no admissible evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment.
We turn now to the claims plaintiff has asserted against the Township and its police department.*fn3 A municipality such as the Township of Hanover may not be held liable under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 absent a showing that the wrongs complained of occurred pursuant to a municipal policy or custom; a municipality is not subject to liability under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2037-38, 56 L.Ed. 2d 611, 638 (1978). Plaintiff has not alleged or proven that Hanover had a policy or custom that resulted in the alleged violation of her civil rights and, to the extent plaintiff asserted a § 1983 action against the Township, it was entitled to summary judgment.
In addition, to the extent that one or more of the Township's employees were entitled to immunity, the Township was similarly entitled to immunity. It thus, for example, is entitled to immunity for the claims plaintiff has posited against the municipal court judge. The municipality could not be liable for the actions of the municipal court judge because it had no control over his decisions and actions. K.D. v. Bozarth, 313 N.J. Super. 561, 571 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 425 (1998).
Further, to the extent that plaintiff's claims against the Township are for a failure to protect her against alleged threats from others or intrusions into her home, N.J.S.A. 59:5-4 affords immunity to the Township. The trial court correctly granted summary judgment to the Township and its Police Department.
We turn now to the claims plaintiff has asserted against various police officers of the Township, including those which relate to the conduct of Patrolman Carpenter and Sergeant Vitanza, the two officers involved in removing her from her vehicle in November of 2005 when she would not comply with a directive to step out of it. This, she asserts, violated her constitutional rights. We note that this claim is not, as the trial court indicated, barred by the statute of limitations. The incident occurred on November 19, 2005, and plaintiff filed her complaint on November 16, 2007, just meeting the two-year filing deadline. The record, however, as the trial court stated, does not support her contention of police brutality and mistreatment. The trial court correctly granted these defendants summary judgment on plaintiff's claim that the officers were liable to her under tort principles and under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983.
She also alleges that they are liable to her for false imprisonment. Plaintiff was arrested for driving while intoxicated, an offense for which she was subsequently convicted. There is no merit to her claim of false imprisonment. R. 2:11-3(e)(2).
Plaintiff also asserts that the two officers "unlawfully entered" her vehicle and that other, unnamed individuals unlawfully entered her home. These officers entered her car in the course of removing her when she did not comply with the command to step out. They are entitled to immunity for their actions under N.J.S.A. 59:3-9.
There is nothing in this record to identify the individuals who allegedly entered plaintiff's home and disturbed it. Absent any evidential link to these officers (or to the remaining individual defendants), defendants were entitled to summary judgment.
To the extent that plaintiff contends that the officers' actions may have constituted a violation of various sections of our criminal code, such claims would not give rise to a private right of action. Nor did plaintiff establish a cause of action under the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights; she did not submit admissible proof of a "personal, physical or psychological injury . . . as a result of a crime." N.J.S.A. 52:4B-37.
According to plaintiff, defendant Grawehr prepared a false police report regarding her initial visit to the Hanover police station on October 30, 2005, to file a complaint against her former boyfriend. Plaintiff maintains that Grawehr did not interview her, although he signed a report stating that he did so; she also maintains that the report itself is inconsistent and omitted pertinent information. She further alleges that defendant Zvolensky was involved in interviewing her that evening. She maintains that he treated her rudely and subsequently filed a false report. We agree with the trial court that these actions, if true, do not support a private cause of action for damages. Rather, they would be potential grounds for a disciplinary matter for the internal affairs unit of the Department to pursue and investigate. In addition, these claims are also barred by the two-year statute of limitations.
Plaintiff's claim against defendant Kaiser relates to two incidents she says occurred in January 2006 when she was in a bar in Whippany. She says she was approached by defendant Kaiser and another individual, Sykes, who began to make taunting remarks, reducing her to tears. Kaiser did not intervene. Contrary to plaintiff's contentions, his failure to act does not subject him to civil liability. N.J.S.A. 59:5-4.
Finally, nothing within plaintiff's papers would support a claim against defendant Collora.
The order under review is affirmed.