July 7, 2011
JAYANT ABDEO AND NALINI ABDEO, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
BOROUGH OF SOUTH PLAINFIELD POLICE DEPARTMENT, OFFICER M. HOLLAIN, LT. P. WYLAM, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-7578-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued December 7, 2010
Before Judges Graves and Messano.
Plaintiff Jayant Abdeo and his wife, Nalini Abdeo,*fn1 appeal from three May 14, 2010 orders dismissing their claims and granting summary judgment to defendants Borough of South Plainfield Police Department (the Department), Officer M. Hollain, and Lieutenant P. Wylam.*fn2 We affirm.
On July 5, 2006, Edward C. Laferra of the South Plainfield Borough Fire Department issued a summons and complaint to Inamco, a New Jersey corporation, for failure to pay a penalty. The summons instructed Inamco to appear before the Municipal Court of South Plainfield at 9:00 a.m. on July 12, 2006. The matter was rescheduled for July 19, 2006, but Inamco failed to appear. On September 15, 2006, the municipal court issued an arrest warrant for "any officer of Inamco."
The warrant was ultimately assigned to Officer Hollain, a member of the Department.*fn3 On November 27, 2006, Hollain traveled to Inamco's facility in South Plainfield to execute the warrant. Prior to the arrest, Hollain "contacted headquarters to make sure that the warrant was valid."
According to Hollain's incident report, he encountered plaintiff, who stated that he had become president of Inamco on September 20, 2006, and "did not know anything about [the summons and complaint]." According to plaintiff, he immediately offered to pay the $500 bail, but Hollain refused. Plaintiff was placed under arrest, handcuffed, and transported to police headquarters. Hollain began to process plaintiff but was soon told by another officer, Sergeant Diana,*fn4 that the arrest was unnecessary. Therefore, Diana "de-arrested" plaintiff, and plaintiff was released after posting bail.
Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division in August 2007, stating that Hollain and Wylam "did illegally and improperly falsely arrest, detain, and imprison" him. The first count of the complaint stated that these acts violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, the New Jersey Constitution, and the Civil Rights Act (CRA or the Act), N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2; the second count alleged negligent supervision against the Department; and the third count claimed loss of consortium for plaintiff's wife. On October 15, 2007, defendants removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.
Two years later, on December 1, 2009, defendants moved for summary judgment. In a written decision dated February 11, 2010, the district court found that "Officer Hollain was not required to investigate the basis of the bench warrant to ensure that it complied with all of the New Jersey rules." In addition, the court determined that the warrant's reference to "any officer of Inamco" did not violate the United States Constitution:
The warrant here clearly indicates that only an officer of a specified corporation at a specified address may be arrested and, in essence, commands the officer to first identify whether the person being arrested in fact is an officer of the corporation.
This category of "officers" is a small, finite, and identifiable group of individuals. . . . The Court finds that the warrant's description in this case provided sufficient specificity to minimize the error of Officer Hollain arresting a person not commanded or intended to be arrested by the municipal court. Thus, the Court finds that the warrant was not facially invalid. Under the circumstances, Officer Hollain could have reasonably presumed that the warrant was valid, especially given that he had no involvement in the issuance of the warrant and was merely tasked with its execution.
Therefore, the district court granted summary judgment to defendants on plaintiff's federal claims under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. However, it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's state claims under the CRA.
Plaintiff subsequently reinstated his complaint in the Law Division on March 5, 2010. He moved for partial summary judgment as to liability only on or about March 25, 2010, and defendants cross-moved for summary judgment and dismissal of the complaint. On May 14, 2010, the Law Division granted summary judgment to defendants and dismissed the complaint. In an oral decision, the court reasoned:
In [State v. Marshall, 199 N.J. 602, 611 (2009)], the standard is . . . whether or not the description is such that an officer with a warrant can with a reasonable effort ascertain and identify the subject of the warrant. Here, we're talking about a finite group of individuals, the corporate officers of this particular corporation under New Jersey's statute that I indicated there are at minimum three corporate officers. There's nothing in the record to indicate that this [police] officer, in executing the arrest warrant gathered a bunch of people and had unbridled discretion in exercising who to arrest or not to arrest. . . . State v. Marshall allows . . . a police officer to make the determination within a finite group of individuals. [I] find that . . . this warrant was on its face, valid. . . . [T]he executing officer did not have an individual responsibility or obligation to look beyond the face of the warrant and . . . his actions were reasonable under the circumstances and the facts known to him.
On appeal, plaintiff presents the following arguments:
THE SOUTH PLAINFIELD "ANY OFFICER" ARREST WARRANT VIOLATES THE PARTICULARITY REQUIREMENT OF THE FOURTH AMENDMENT BY PERMITTING THE POLICE TO RANDOMLY CHOOSE WHO AMONG A FINITE NUMBER OF IDENTIFIABLE INDIVIDUALS THEY CARE TO ARREST.
THE SOUTH PLAINFIELD "ANY OFFICER" ARREST WARRANT VIOLATES THE PARTICULARITY REQUIREMENT OF ART, I, ¶ 7 OF THE NEW JERSEY CONSTITUTION BY PERMITTING THE POLICE TO RANDOMLY CHOOSE WHO AMONG A FINITE NUMBER OF IDENTIFIABLE INDIVIDUALS THEY CARE TO ARREST.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY IS NOT BOUND BY THE LEGAL OR FACTUAL FINDINGS OF THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.
NEITHER RES JUDICATA, COMITY, NOR COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL BARS THIS COURT FROM CONTINUING PLAINTIFF'S § 1983 CLAIMS AS CONTAINED WITHIN N.J.S.A. 10:6-2 DESPITE THE DISTRICT COURT'S ERRONEOUS ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON THE FEDERAL 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 CLAIMS.
THE SOUTH PLAINFIELD POLICE DEPARTMENT IS LIABLE FOR VIOLATING PLAINTIFF'S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS BASED UPON ITS OFFICIAL CUSTOM AND POLICY OF ITS DEPARTMENTAL POLICYMAKERS.
Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings and evidence "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). Because the issues raised on appeal are purely legal, we owe no deference to the trial court's decision. See Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995) ("A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference.").
Res judicata is a broad common-law doctrine encompassing the modern-day theories of claim preclusion and issue preclusion. Velasquez v. Franz, 123 N.J. 498, 505 (1991); Innes v. Carrascosa, 391 N.J. Super. 453, 488-89 (App. Div. 2007). "The doctrine evolved in response to the specific policy concerns of providing finality and repose for the litigating parties; avoiding the burdens of relitigation for the parties and the court; and maintaining judicial integrity by minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions regarding the same matter." Velasquez, supra, 123 N.J. at 505 (citations omitted).
"In essence, the doctrine of res judicata provides that a cause of action between parties that has been finally determined on the merits by a tribunal having jurisdiction cannot be relitigated by those parties or their privies in a new proceeding." Ibid. (citing Roberts v. Goldner, 79 N.J. 82, 85 (1979)). Put differently, "'when a controversy between parties is once fairly litigated and determined it is no longer open to relitigation.'" Culver v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 115 N.J. 451, 460 (1989) (quoting Lubliner v. Bd. of Alcoholic Beverage Control, 33 N.J. 428, 435 (1960)).
"Reliance on the theory of res judicata requires: '(1) a final judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction, (2) identity of issues, (3) identity of parties and (4) identity of the cause of action.'" Selective Ins. Co. v. McAllister, 327 N.J. Super. 168, 172-73 (App. Div.) (quoting T.W. v. A.W., 224 N.J. Super. 675, 682 (App. Div. 1988), certif. denied, 117 N.J. 44 (1989)), certif. denied, 164 N.J. 188 (2000). Application of the doctrine "is a question of law 'to be determined by a judge in the second proceeding after weighing the appropriate factors bearing on that issue.'" Id. at 173 (quoting Colucci v. Thomas Nicol Asphalt Co., 194 N.J. Super. 510, 518 (App. Div. 1984)).
Collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, is a "'branch of the broader law of res judicata which bars relitigation of any issue which was actually determined in a prior action, generally between the same parties, involving a different claim or cause of action.'" Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill, 189 N.J. 497, 520 (2007) (quoting Sacharow v. Sacharow, 177 N.J. 62, 76 (2003)). The application of collateral estoppel "'means simply that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit.'" State v. Brown, 394 N.J. Super. 492, 501 (App. Div. 2007) (quoting Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 443, 90 S. Ct. 1189, 1194, 25 L. Ed. 2d 469, 475 (1970)).
To apply collateral estoppel, the proponent must show that:
"(1) the issue to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior proceeding; (2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior proceeding; (3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits; (4) the determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment; and (5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding." [First Union Nat'l Bank v. Penn Salem Marina, Inc., 190 N.J. 342, 352 (2007) (quoting Hennessey v. Winslow Twp., 183 N.J. 593, 599 (2005)).]
In this case, plaintiff's federal claims are blocked by collateral estoppel. His arguments are identical to those raised before the district court; he had "'a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue,'" Perez v. Rent-a-Center, Inc., 186 N.J. 188, 199 (2006) (quoting Fama v. Yi, 359 N.J. Super. 353, 359 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 178 N.J. 29 (2003)); the district court entered a final judgment to which determination of the federal claims was essential; and the parties involved are identical.
We now consider plaintiff's state-law claims, which were not considered by the district court. As an initial matter, we find that these claims are not precluded by res judicata or collateral estoppel. Although our courts "look to federal interpretation of the United States Constitution as a guide," we often interpret our State's constitution "to provide greater protections for our citizens than would its federal counterpart." State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39, 51 (2011); see also State v. Reid, 194 N.J. 386, 396 (2008) ("[O]n multiple occasions, this Court has held that the New Jersey Constitution 'affords our citizens greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures' than the Fourth Amendment.") (quoting State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95, 145 (1987)). Therefore, while plaintiff's CRA claims are similar to those filed under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, they are not "identical" for the purposes of collateral estoppel. See First Union Nat'l Bank, supra, 190 N.J. at 352.
Where a defendant in municipal court is a corporation, our court rules require the judge to issue a summons rather than an arrest warrant. R. 7:2-2(b). If the corporation fails to appear under the terms of the summons, "the court shall proceed as if the corporation had appeared and entered a plea of not guilty." R. 7:2-2(c). Nevertheless, an improper arrest under these provisions does not destroy the underlying criminal complaint, but rather necessitates the court's amendment of the defect pursuant to Rule 7:2-5. See State v. Egles, 308 N.J. Super. 124, 130-32 (App. Div. 1998).
In this case, it is undisputed that the warrant was improperly issued and that plaintiff should not have been arrested. As a corporation, Inamco should only have been issued a summons, Rule 7:2-2(b), and its failure to appear should have resulted in a plea of "not guilty," Rule 7:2-2(c).
Nevertheless, we find that plaintiff's claims under the CRA were properly dismissed. The Act states:
Any person who has been deprived of any substantive due process or equal protection rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or any substantive rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of this State, or whose exercise or enjoyment of those substantive rights, privileges or immunities has been interfered with or attempted to be interfered with, by threats, intimidation or coercion by a person acting under color of law, may bring a civil action for damages and for injunctive or other appropriate relief. [N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c).]
Under Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution: [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, house, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue except upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the papers and things to be seized. [N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7.]
The language of Paragraph 7 is "nearly identical" to that of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. State v. Marshall, supra, 199 N.J. at 610.*fn5 Moreover, Paragraph 7's particularity requirement is supported and clarified by our court rules, which require any arrest warrant issued by a municipal court to "contain the defendant's name or, if unknown, any name or description that identifies the defendant with reasonable certainty." R. 7:2-1(d).
Although the warrant in this case was issued in error, we find that it was not sufficiently vague to violate the particularity requirement. As noted by both the Law Division and the federal district court, the warrant targeted a small, finite group of individuals, and the police were given only limited discretion. Cf. Marshall, supra, 199 N.J. at 611 (indicating that the particularity requirement "mandates that 'the description is such that the officer with a search warrant can with reasonable effort ascertain and identify the place intended'") (quoting Steele v. United States, 267 U.S. 498, 503, 45 S. Ct. 414, 416, 69 L. Ed. 757, 760 (1925)). Accordingly, summary judgment was properly granted to defendants.