UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
June 29, 2011
CITY OF CAMDEN THROUGH ITS POLICE DEPARTMENT, SERGEANT ALVIE GRIMES, INVESTIGATOR BRIAN RICE, SERGEANT JEFFREY CRAIG,
INVESTIGATOR JEFFREY DUNLAP, INVESTIGATOR TERRY KING, AND JOHN DOES 1-10, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge
Presently before the Court is the motion of defendants Alvie Grimes, Jeffrey Craig, Jeffrey Dunlap, and Terry King for judgment on the pleadings on plaintiff's claims that they violated his federal and state constitutional rights for maliciously prosecuting him.*fn1 For the reasons expressed below, defendants' motions will be granted.
Plaintiff, Roman Thomas, claims in his First Amended Complaint that on April 20, 2004 defendants Alvie Grimes, Jeffrey Dunlap, and Terry King, investigators for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, and Jeffrey Craig, an investigator for the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, caused a criminal charge to be filed against him alleging a second degree conspiracy to distribute over five pounds of marijuana.*fn2 The charge wasdismissed on January 10, 2008. Plaintiff claims that this criminal charge constituted malicious prosecution, in violation of his federal and state constitutional rights.
Defendants have moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that plaintiff's claims for malicious prosecution fail because he cannot meet the elements of such a claim against any of the defendants. Defendants also contend that they are entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiff's federal constitutional claims. Plaintiff has not opposed defendants' motion.
A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction Plaintiff has brought federal constitutional claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as claims under New Jersey law. This Court has jurisdiction over plaintiff's federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's related state law claims under 28 U.S.C. §1367.
B. Standard for Judgment on the Pleadings
A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings may be filed after the pleadings are closed. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c); Turbe v. Gov't of V.I., 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991). In analyzing a Rule 12(c) motion, a court applies the same legal standards as applicable to a motion filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe, 938 F.2d at 428.
A district court, in weighing a motion to dismiss, asks "'not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claim.'" Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1969 n.8 (2007) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhoades, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) ("Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for 'all civil actions' . . . ."); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) ("Iqbal . . . provides the final nail-in-the-coffin for the 'no set of facts' standard that applied to federal complaints before Twombly.").
Following the Twombly/Iqbal standard, the Third Circuit has instructed a two-part analysis in reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; a district court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210 (citing Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950). Second, a district court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950). A complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. Id.; see alsoPhillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (stating that the "Supreme Court's Twombly formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus: 'stating . . . a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest' the required element. This 'does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage,' but instead 'simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary element").
A court need not credit either "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" in a complaint when deciding a motion to dismiss. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997). The defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented. Hedges v. U.S., 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).
Plaintiff's state and federal constitutional violation claims against
defendants are all based on his allegation that he was maliciously
prosecuted for a drug distribution conspiracy charge.*fn3
According to plaintiff's complaint, on April 20, 2004,
defendant Craig and other unidentified officers came to plaintiff's house to arrest plaintiff for second degree conspiracy to
distribute over five pounds of marijuana.*fn4
Plaintiff was at work. His wife called him at work so that he could speak with Craig. Plaintiff told Craig there must be a misunderstanding, but Craig instructed plaintiff to call defendant Grimes. Grimes instructed plaintiff to immediately go to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office within twenty minutes, or a police officer would be sent to plaintiff's place of employment and he would be arrested there.
Plaintiff arrived that the Camden County Prosecutor's Office at 8:10am. The front desk person said she would contact Grimes. Two unidentified officers came to greet plaintiff, and took him into a dark room and frisked him. No contraband was found, and plaintiff was handcuffed. One of those officers transported plaintiff by minivan to what appeared to be a post office warehouse. There, he was photographed, and he signed a consent form to search his house. Unidentified officers then drove plaintiff to his home. His house was searched, and no contraband was found.
After the search, plaintiff was transferred back to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office and interviewed by Grimes and defendant Rice. Plaintiff claims that even though the investigation revealed that he was in no way involved in a conspiracy to distribute marijuana, defendants King and Dunlap signed a complaint against plaintiff for the conspiracy charge.*fn5
The charge was dismissed on January 10, 2008.
Defendants have moved for judgment on plaintiff's malicious prosecution claims against them. To prove malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment,*fn6 a plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant initiated a criminal proceeding; (2) the criminal proceeding ended in his favor; (3) the defendant initiated the proceeding without probable cause; (4) the defendant acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and (5) the plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal proceeding. Johnson v. Knorr, 477 F.3d 75, 81-82 (3d Cir. 2007) (footnote omitted).
Plaintiff's complaint has only provided bare-bones legal conclusions, little or no facts to support his malicious prosecution claim, and it fails as to all defendants for several reasons. As a primary matter, to hold defendants liable for civil rights violations, they must have had personal involvement in the alleged wrongs. "Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). These allegations of participation or actual knowledge and acquiescence "must be made with appropriate particularity." Id. Except with regard to defendants King and Dunlap, plaintiff has failed to do so.
Next, with regard to whether any defendant initiated a criminal proceeding against plaintiff, plaintiff states that "despite a lack of evidence to support the criminal charge," King and Dunlap signed a complaint against him for the drug distribution conspiracy charge. A prosecutor is generally responsible for initiating a proceeding against a defendant, but a police officer can be considered to have done so if he or she "knowingly provided false information to the prosecutor or otherwise interfered with the prosecutor's informed discretion." White v. Brommer, --- F. Supp. 2d ----, 2010 WL 3855545, *7 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2010); Gatter v. Zappile, 67 F. Supp. 2d 515, 521 (E.D. Pa. 1999) (citing Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 279 n.5 (1994)); Morales v. Busbee, 972 F. Supp. 254, 263 n.4 (D.N.J. 1997). In this case, plaintiff does not allege that King or Dunlap, or any other defendant officer, provided false information to the prosecutor or interfered with the prosecutor's decision to formally charge plaintiff. Thus, plaintiff's malicious prosecution claims against all defendants fail on this basis alone.
Plaintiff's complaint is also deficient as to other elements of a malicious prosecution claim.*fn7 In his complaint, plaintiff claims that there was a lack of evidence to support the criminal charge brought against him, which the Court interprets as his allegation that probable cause was lacking. "Probable cause to arrest requires more than mere suspicion; however, it does not require that the officer have evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested." Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482-83 (3d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). Other than stating the legal conclusion that the criminal charge was filed without evidence, plaintiff has provided nothing to show how the "facts and circumstances" of the situation appeared to any defendant, and how it would be unreasonable for any defendant to believe under those facts and circumstances that plaintiff had acted criminally. This dearth of any substantive detail to the third element of plaintiff's malicious prosecution claims is also singularly fatal to their viability.
Similarly, plaintiff has not articulated any facts that would show
that any defendant acted with malice. "Actual malice in the context of
malicious prosecution is defined as either ill will in the sense of
spite, lack of belief by the actor himself in the propriety of the
prosecution, or its use for an extraneous improper purpose." Morales
v. Busbee, 972 F. Supp. 254, 261 (D.N.J. 1997) (citation omitted)
(also explaining that the element of malice may also be inferred from
a lack of probable cause). The lack of any allegations as to the fourth*fn8
element of plaintiff's malicious prosecution claims casts the
final strike against their viability.
Because plaintiff has failed to provide more than "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" in his complaint in support of his malicious prosecution claims against the defendants, defendants are entitled to judgment in their favor.*fn9 An Order consistent with this Opinion will be entered.
At Camden, New Jersey NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.