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Grace M. Jefferson and James Jefferson v. Township of Medford

December 16, 2010

GRACE M. JEFFERSON AND JAMES JEFFERSON, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF MEDFORD, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

Plaintiffs, Grace M. Jefferson and James Jefferson, allege that Defendants, the Township of Medford (or, "Township"), the Medford Township Police Department, Chief of Police James S. Kehoe, Corporal Robert Zane, and Sergeant Gary Lang, violated their constitutional rights when Grace Jefferson was physically injured by Officers Zane and Lang. In response to Plaintiffs' claims, Defendants move for summary judgment.

For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

I. JURISDICTION

Plaintiffs have brought federal constitutional claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as claims under New Jersey law. The Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

II. BACKGROUND*fn1

On the afternoon of December 5, 2006, Grace M. Jefferson (or, "Jefferson") was extremely upset about ongoing proceedings involving one of her daughters. Jefferson's youngest daughter had previously reported that James Jefferson, Grace Jefferson's husband, had inappropriately touched her. The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office and the Division of Youth and Family Services investigated the allegations. As a result of the investigation, Jefferson's two minor daughters were removed from her home and placed in the care of Jefferson's adult daughter.

On the day in question, Jefferson returned to her home after her appointment with a detective involved in her daughter's case was canceled. At home in Medford Township, Jefferson was hysterical, exclaiming her displeasure with the detective and the proceedings in general. She then returned to her vehicle, raced out of the driveway, and drove away abruptly from her residence. Having observed her screaming, crying, and cursing, James Jefferson knew that his wife was upset. Concerned for Jefferson's well-being, James contacted the Medford Township Police Department. Corporal Robert Zane and Sergeant Gary Lang were dispatched to find and check on Jefferson and to ensure her safety.

When Officer Zane found her vehicle parked in a parking lot, Jefferson was inside, talking to Krisden McCrink, her husband's attorney, on a cellular phone. Zane approached Jefferson's vehicle and spoke to her through the open driver's side window. After some banter, Zane asked Jefferson if there was anything he could do to help. Jefferson explained that her problems involved the Medford Township Police Department and a detective in particular. The two individuals then went back and forth, debating the identity and existence of the detective with growing intensity. Jefferson felt that Zane was attempting to draw her into an argument, and grew angry and agitated. Finally, Jefferson offered her cell phone to Zane so that he could speak with McCrink.

While she handed the phone to Zane, Jefferson began to open her door to step out of the car. She denies that the vehicle door contacted the officer. In response to her action, Zane closed the door on Jefferson, pinning her against the vehicle. Thereafter, he grabbed her around the neck, dragged her from the vehicle, and pushed her to the ground. Zane shouted at Jefferson that she struck him with the door and that she was going to jail. While on the ground, Jefferson's arms were pinned beneath her.*fn2

Zane grabbed Jefferson's hair, pulled back her head, and then pushed and grinded her face on the ground.

At some point, Officer Lang and another officer had arrived at the scene, and Lang handcuffed Jefferson while she was lying in the parking lot. While attempting to handcuff Jefferson, one of the officers twisted her arm and tore cartilage in her left shoulder. After handcuffing her, the officers helped Jefferson to her feet, but Zane shoved her back to her knees. According to Jefferson, "[Zane] told me I couldn't get up unless I was going to act like a lady."*fn3 (Def. App., Exh. B, at 75). As a result of the altercation, Jefferson's face was bloodied, handfuls of hair were tugged from her head, and she suffered significant injuries to her neck and shoulder, the latter requiring surgery.

Defendants proffer a different version of the relevant events. Officer Zane recalled approaching the vehicle and observing Jefferson speaking on her cell phone. According to Officers Zane and Lang, Jefferson screamed profanities and expressed how upset she was about the circumstances surrounding her children, the police, and the detective she was supposed to meet that day. To pacify the situation, Zane offered to speak with Jefferson's attorney. Jefferson thrust the phone toward Zane and opened her vehicle's door. The door struck Zane in the forearm, jarring the cell phone out of his hands and knocking him backward. Zane testified at his deposition that the door was swung open "in a forceful manner" and that he understood Jefferson to be acting in such a way as to intentionally hit him with the door, which he blocked with his forearm. (Def. App., Exh. C, at 22). Lang, who was also at the scene, corroborated that Jefferson hit Zane with the door.

Zane then attempted to gain control over Jefferson. He applied, as he characterized, "a common arm bar takedown procedure," and forced Jefferson to the ground. (Def. App., Exh. C, at 25). While on the ground, the officers recalled, Jefferson whipped her head back and forth, kicked her legs, and resisted arrest, despite the officer's requests that she stop. Lang assisted in handcuffing Jefferson. Zane testified that Jefferson flailed and struck her own head on the gravel and that he and Lang attempted to subdue her head to prevent Jefferson from causing any further injuries to herself. Zane denied that he ever placed Jefferson in a headlock, or that he grabbed and pushed Jefferson's head onto the ground, thereby causing any lacerations.*fn4

On or around December 1, 2008, Grace and James Jefferson filed suit in the Superior Court of New Jersey alleging the violation of their federal and New Jersey constitutional rights. In particular, they claim that (1) Officers Zane and Lang employed excessive force and intentionally, willfully, and maliciously injured Grace Jefferson; and that (2) the Township of Medford, the Medford Township Police Department, and Chief of Police James S. Kehoe, have fostered a pattern and practice of deliberate indifference toward the use of excessive force by its police officers, failing to properly train, supervise, or discipline those officers for their misconduct.

On or around December 22, 2008, Defendants removed the case to this Court. Further, on or around March 22, 2010, Defendants moved for summary judgment against Plaintiffs' claims.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that "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 and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).

An issue is "genuine" if it is supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the nonmoving party's evidence "is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. A party opposing summary judgment must do more than just rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or vague statements. Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).

B. Medford Township Police Department

In their complaint, Plaintiffs name the Medford Township Police Department as a defendant in addition to the Township itself. Defendants correctly posit, however, that the Police Department is not a proper defendant in this case. See Padilla v. Twp. of Cherry Hill, 110 F. App'x. 272, 278 (3d Cir. 2004) ("In Section 1983 actions, police departments cannot be sued in conjunction with municipalities, because the police department is merely an administrative arm of the local municipality, and is not a separate judicial entity." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Bonenberger v. Plymouth Twp., 132 F.3d 20, 25 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) ("As in past cases, we treat the municipality and its police department as a single entity for purposes of section 1983 liability."); N.J.S.A. 40A:14-118 (declaring that New Jersey police departments are "an executive and enforcement function of municipal government"). Plaintiffs offer no rebuttal and appear to cede to Defendants' assertion.

Therefore, the Medford Township Police Department is dismissed as a party in this action.

C. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Plaintiffs allege a series of federal constitutional violations under several provisions of the United States Constitution, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants dispute all of those assertions. Beginning with their Fourth Amendment claim, the Court will address each of Plaintiffs' federal claims in turn.

1. Alleged Violations of the Fourth Amendment by the Township of Medford and Chief of Police James S. Kehoe

Defendants argue that Plaintiffs cannot sustain a Section 1983 claim against the Township or Chief Kehoe because they cannot demonstrate any municipal policies or customs that caused the alleged harms borne by Grace Jefferson as a result of the officers' alleged misconduct. In particular, Defendants assert that Plaintiffs have not conducted or gathered any discovery that would illustrate the Township's policies or customs, ...


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