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Mota v. City of Bayonne

November 15, 2010


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-3786-07.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 29, 2010

Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Simonelli.

Plaintiffs Eliezer Mota, Sr. (Mota Sr.) and Eliezer Mota, Jr. (Mota Jr.) appeal from the May 1, 2009 Law Division order, which granted defendants' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

The following facts are derived from evidence submitted by the parties in support of, and in opposition to, the summary judgment motion, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiffs. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). On February 23, 2006, the City of Bayonne Police Department received a "hang up" 911 call from an apartment on the second floor of a residence located on West 45th Street. Officers Raymond Lynch and Joseph Stiles responded to the first floor of the residence, where plaintiffs resided. Mota Sr. answered the officers' call at the door, denied the 911 call was made from his apartment, and refused them entry. Lynch pushed Mota Sr. aside, told him he was arrested, entered the residence, and proceeded to the kitchen where Mota Sr.'s wife, Jacqueline Mota (Mrs. Mota), was emerging.

Mrs. Mota, who only spoke Spanish, repeatedly asked the officers, "que pasa?" Lynch then placed his hand on Mrs. Mota's arm, and twisted it as if to place her on the floor, prompting the woman to respond in Spanish, "Oh, my God. I didn't do anything. Oh, my God. Please stop." When Mota Jr. tried to intervene, Lynch grabbed him by the arm saying "oh, you want to be a F'ing hero?" The officer then grabbed Mota Jr.'s arm and then by the neck with both hands, slammed him into the wall, repeatedly "kneed" him in his groin area, took him to the kitchen, slammed him into the kitchen sink, and then slammed him face first onto the floor and said, "this is what happens when you become a hero." Lynch placed his knee on Mota Jr.'s neck, moved it between the young man's shoulder blades and handcuffed him. As Mota Jr. lay handcuffed on the floor, Lynch kicked him in the abdominal area. Lynch then pulled Mota Jr. up by the handcuffs, took him outside, and slammed his chest and stomach into a patrol vehicle. The officer placed the young man into the patrol vehicle and took him to police headquarters. Mota Jr. never resisted arrest.

When Mota Sr. also attempted to intervene, Stiles grabbed him, said, "don't make things worse than what it is[,]" and handcuffed him. Mota Sr. begged Stiles to stop Lynch by stating, "[Lynch is] going to kill my son."

Mota Sr. admits that no police officer physically assaulted him, and that he sustained no injuries as a result of the arrest. On the other hand, Mota Jr. sustained injuries to his abdominal area, collarbone, left arm, wrists and lip, for which he sought medical treatment. He also experienced nightmares as a result of the incident.

The Motas were charged in Bayonne municipal court with simple assault, resisting arrest, and obstructing a governmental function. As part of a plea agreement, the municipal prosecutor agreed to dismiss the assault and resisting arrest charges and downgrade the obstruction charges to a violation of a municipal noise ordinance. In exchange, the Motas stipulated that the officers were legitimately on the premises, pursuant to their caretaking function and in a caretaking capacity and that, once they arrived on scene, the conduct of the [Motas] elevated the level to that of probable cause, which resulted in the arrest of both Mr. Mota, Sr. and Mr. Mota, Jr.

Plaintiffs subsequently filed a complaint, alleging a violation of 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, negligence, negligent hiring and retention of Lynch, and supervisory liability based on Lynch's use of excessive force. Plaintiffs filed a motion to compel discovery as a result of defendants' repeated refusal to comply with discovery. The trial judge denied the motion without prejudice in order to afford plaintiffs the opportunity to narrow their discovery demand. Plaintiffs then served a narrower discovery demand for documents necessary to prosecute their claims of negligent hiring and retention of Lynch; specifically, Lynch's personnel file, employment history, and documents relating to any formal or informal complaints against him. Plaintiffs also noticed Lynch and Stiles for depositions.

Defendants did not respond to plaintiffs' amended discovery demand. Instead, they filed a summary judgment motion. Relying primarily on Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed. 2d 383 (1994), defendants argued that plaintiffs' municipal court stipulation barred their claims. Plaintiffs filed a cross-motion to compel discovery. The trial judge denied plaintiffs' motion and granted defendants' motion, concluding that the stipulation barred plaintiffs' claims. This appeal followed.

On appeal, plaintiffs contend that the motion judge failed to make adequate findings of fact and conclusions of law as to all claims, and that incomplete discovery made summary judgment premature. Our review of a ruling on summary judgment is de novo, applying the same legal standard as the trial court. Chance v. McCann, 405 N.J. Super. 547, 563 (App. Div. 2009). Thus, we consider, as the trial judge did, "'whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Liberty Surplus Ins. Corp. v. Nowell Amoroso, P.A., 189 N.J. 436, 445-46 (2007) (quoting Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 536). Summary judgment must be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, we must then "decide whether the trial court correctly interpreted the law." Massachi v. AHL Servs., Inc., 396 N.J. Super. 486, 494 (App. Div. 2007), certif. denied, 195 N.J. 419 (2008).

Applying these standards, we conclude that the trial judge properly granted summary judgment as to Mota Sr. Lynch did not arrest Mota Sr., Stiles did. There is no evidence that Stiles or any other police officer used excessive force during or after his arrest. Accordingly, all of Mota Sr.'s claims were properly dismissed ...

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