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Joanne Trafton v. City of Woodbury

June 29, 2011


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


Plaintiff, Joanne Trafton, alleges Defendants City of Woodbury, City of Woodbury Police Department and Officer Harold Holmstrom violated her federal and state civil rights when Officer Holmstrom falsely arrested and injured her. In response to Plaintiff's claims, Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 18] is granted in part and denied in part.


Plaintiff has alleged several federal constitutional claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as claims under the New Jersey Constitution and common law. The Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.


On the morning of July 5, 2007, Plaintiff, Joanne Trafton, deposited camera film at CVS Pharmacy (hereinafter "CVS") in Woodbury, New Jersey. During development of the film, an employee of CVS noticed it contained several images (hereinafter "pictures" or "photographs") of two adolescent minors posing with various weaponry, including several guns and a crossbow. This prompted the employee to notify his manager who, subsequently, phoned the Woodbury police. An officer, not a party to this proceeding, arrived and examined the photographs. Although he took no immediate action regarding the pictures, he requested that CVS notify him if someone attempted to retrieve the photographs.

Later that afternoon Plaintiff returned to CVS to pickup the pictures. She approached the photo development processing counter and told an employee her name. The employee then went to an office and notified the Woodbury police. The officer that initially handled the matter was unavailable and Defendant Harold Holmstrom (hereinafter "Holmstrom"), a patrolman with the Woodbury Police Department, was dispatched. When he arrived at CVS, an employee handed Defendant Holmstrom the pictures.*fn1

Shortly thereafter, Defendant Holmstrom approached Plaintiff and asked whether she had seen the photographs. Plaintiff responded she had not and that she could not wait to view them. A discussion then ensued among Defendant Holmstrom, Plaintiff and a female CVS employee concerning the nature of the firearms in the photographs. Plaintiff contended she had not taken the pictures and that the guns were not real but rather were her son's paintball and BB guns.*fn2 In an effort to demonstrate his perception that the guns were real, Defendant Holmstrom remarked, "I'd shoot him [Plaintiff's son]. I'm serious if he pulled that out [referring to a gun]." Doc. 18-5, Exhibit F. Plaintiff ignored this comment and expressed disbelief that CVS called the police because of the content of the photographs.

As Defendant Holmstrom and Plaintiff viewed the photographs, a CVS employee explained the rationale for calling the police. The discussion then focused on a picture of Plaintiff's son holding a crossbow. In reference to this photograph, Defendant Holmstrom remarked that possession of a crossbow is illegal in New Jersey. Plaintiff replied that her husband had a permit for the weapon. Defendant Holmstrom ignored this response and reiterated that crossbows are illegal in New Jersey.

At this point in the conversation, Plaintiff exhibited some hostility. She exclaimed "this is ridiculous," to which Defendant Holmstrom replied, "this is ridiculous" that "you have this going on." Id. Plaintiff then stated "what, my husband shoots guns all the time." Id. In response, Defendant Holmstrom asked Plaintiff if "this is proper behavior," and Plaintiff replied "they are taking pictures of each other, what is the big deal." Id. The hostility between Plaintiff and Defendant Holmstrom continued to grow. Plaintiff again exclaimed "you are ridiculous" and told Defendant Holmstrom to "step away from me." Id. Defendant Holmstrom then requested Plaintiff's name and she replied "no." Id. In response, Defendant Holmstrom stated he would call DYFS.

The order of the events that occurred shortly before and immediately after Defendant Holmstrom threatened to call DYFS is both exceedingly critical and disputed.*fn3 Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, for purposes of this Motion, the recordings indicate that Plaintiff "backed" away from Defendant Holmstrom in an effort to secure personal space, not as an attempt to leave CVS.*fn4 In her effort to acquire personal space, Plaintiff walked several feet to the photo checkout counter and stopped. At the photo checkout counter Defendant Holmstrom again requested identification. Plaintiff refused, indicating it was not in her possession. Defendant Holmstrom then requested Plaintiff's name. Following her refusal to disclose her name, Defendant Holmstrom informed Plaintiff he would arrest her for hindrance. In response, Plaintiff stated "that is fine, arrest me." Doc. 18-5, Exhibit F. Defendant Holmstrom again reiterated that she would be arrested for hindrance, to which Plaintiff again replied "arrest me." Id. Defendant Holmstrom then told Plaintiff to put her hands behind her back. Plaintiff refused to comply and attempted to leave CVS.*fn5

Defendant Holmstrom physically prevented Plaintiff from leaving CVS and reiterated that she was under arrest. In the process of preventing Plaintiff from leaving, she somehow fell to the floor and a short struggle ensued. Throughout this profanity laced struggle, Plaintiff maintained an extremely hostile attitude toward Defendant Holmstrom and yelled several times for him to "get away from me."*fn6 Id. Plaintiff was eventually subdued and handcuffed. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff exclaimed that Defendant Holmstrom was "hurting my hands." Id. Defendant Holmstrom ignored this comment and told Plaintiff to "relax." Id. Immediately thereafter, Plaintiff again proceeded to verbally chastize Defendant Holmstrom.*fn7 This behavior occurred in CVS and continued for essentially the entirety of the approximate three minute drive from CVS to the Woodbury Police station.*fn8

Intermixed within Plaintiff's hostile and derogatory commentary were various claims that her hands hurt.*fn9 Defendant Holmstrom ignored these claims.

Upon Plaintiff's arrival at the Woodbury police station, Defendant Holmstrom handcuffed her to a chair. Although Plaintiff was only handcuffed for a five to ten minute period, her request for removal of the handcuffs was ignored. In her deposition testimony, Plaintiff opined that the officers, including Defendant Holmstrom, ignored her five statements concerning her wrist pain and never checked the placement of the handcuffs. Eventually the handcuffs were removed and Plaintiff was charged with three offenses, (1) obstructing the administration of law, in violation of NJSA 2C:29-1, (2) disorderly conduct, in violation of NJSA 2C:33-2(a) and (3) resisting arrest, in violation of NJSA 2C:29-2.

On July 16, 2007, Plaintiff received treatment for pain in her right wrist at the Orthopaedics at Woodbury. After several visits over the course of two years, Plaintiff's treating physician concluded that her injury was permanent and that her continued pain was related to the handcuff incident with Defendant Holmstrom. The only relief available to Plaintiff is an injection, every six months, in her wrist.

On April 16, 2008, Plaintiff pled guilty in the Gloucester County Municipal Court.*fn10 On July 1, 2009, Plaintiff filed her Complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Gloucester County. On August 12, 2009, Defendants removed this action to federal court. Approximately one year later, on September 29, 2010, Defendants moved for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposes entry of summary judgment.


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 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. 1983 Claims

1. Defendant City of Woodbury Police Department

In her Complaint, Plaintiff names both the City of Woodbury (hereinafter "Woodbury") and the City of Woodbury Police Department as Defendants. The Police Department, however, is not a proper defendant in this case. For purposes of section 1983 liability, municipalities and its police departments are treated as a "single entity." Bonenberger v. Plymouth Twp., 132 F.3d 20, 25 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997); see N.J.S.A. 40A:14-118 (declaring that New Jersey police departments are "an executive and enforcement function of municipal government"). "[P]olice 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." Padilla v. Twp. of Cherry Hill, 110 F. App'x. 272, 278 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, summary judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant City of Woodbury Police Department.

2. Defendant City of Woodbury

Plaintiff argues Defendant Woodbury failed to adequately train Defendant Holmstrom on how to properly utilize handcuffs. "When a suit against a municipality is based on § 1983, the municipality can only be liable when the alleged constitutional transgression implements or executes a policy, regulation or decision officially adopted by the governing body or informally adopted by custom." Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966, 971 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978)).

Accordingly, under Section 1983, a municipality may be liable for either its policy or custom:

A government policy or custom can be established in two ways. Policy is made when a decisionmaker possessing final authority to establish a municipal policy with respect to the action issues an official proclamation, policy, or edict. A course of conduct is considered to be a "custom" when, though not authorized by law, such practices of state officials are so permanently and well-settled as to virtually constitute law.

McTernan v. City of York Pennsylvania, 564 F.3d 636, 658 (3d Cir. 2009) (citations, internal quotation marks, and brackets omitted). "Custom requires proof of knowledge and acquiescence by the decision-maker." Id. Furthermore, "[a] plaintiff bears the additional burden of proving that the municipal practice was the proximate cause of the injuries suffered." Bielevicz v. Dubinon, 915 F.2d 845, 850 (3d Cir. 1990). To do so, "a plaintiff must demonstrate a 'plausible nexus' or 'affirmative link' between the municipality's custom and the specific deprivation of constitutional rights at issue." Id. (citations omitted); see Moleski v. Cheltenham Twp., No. 01-4648, 2002 WL 32349132, at *13 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 30, 2002) ("In failure to train, supervise, or investigate contexts, the casual link must connect the deficient training, supervisory or investigatory programs and the constitutional injury, otherwise it would 'open municipalities to unprecedented liability under § 1983' and subject them to 'de facto respondeat superior liability.'" (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 391-92 (1989))). The issue of proximate causation is often reserved for the jury "[a]s long as the casual link is not too tenuous." Bielevicz, 915 F.2d at 851.

In the present matter, Plaintiff does not point to an explicit or affirmative policy. Instead, she alleges that Defendant Woodbury failed to properly train its officers how to identify whether a suspect is handcuffed too tightly and how to address a suspect's pleas for assistance regarding tightness of handcuffs. To establish a Section 1983 cause of action against a city for failure to train its police officers, the plaintiff must show that the city was deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of its inhabitants. Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 637 (3d Cir. 1995); see Tobin v. Badamo, 78 F. App'x 217, 219 (3d Cir. 2003) ("A municipality may be held liable under section 1983 when its failure to supervise police officers reflects a policy of deliberate indifference to constitutional rights." (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)).

Plaintiff's Complaint does not assert a ยง 1983 claim against Defendant Woodbury. None of the four counts of Plaintiff's Complaint allege that Defendant Woodbury failed to properly train Defendant Holmstrom. Even if the Court ignored this deficiency, Plaintiff's claim against Defendant Woodbury would still be insufficient because Plaintiff failed to ...

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