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Dolores Ingram v. Township of Deptford

March 13, 2012

DOLORES INGRAM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF DEPTFORD, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

SIMANDLE, Chief Judge:

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court on Defendants Township of Deptford, Deptford Township Police and Sgt. Michael Taylor's ("Defendants") motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). [Docket Item 7.] Plaintiff Dolores Ingram has filed opposition. For the reasons discussed herein, the court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion to dismiss.

II. BACKGROUND

The instant action arises out of Defendant Sgt. Michael Taylor's alleged use of excessive force on the Plaintiff in removing her from a municipal court proceeding pursuant to the order a municipal court judge.

On or about May 13, 2009, Plaintiff Dolores Ingram ("Plaintiff") was a crime victim waiting to testify as a witness in the Deptford Municipal Court where the Honorable William Golden presides. (Compl. ¶ 10.) When the case in which Plaintiff was to testify was called, the defendants had not appeared and were not in the courtroom. (Compl. ¶ 11.)

At the time of the incident, the Plaintiff was 74 years old and had difficulty hearing the judge. (Compl. ¶ 12.) The Plaintiff asked if she could speak to the Judge and explain the situation. (Compl. ¶ 12.) At this point, Judge Golden stated "remove her from the courtroom." (Compl. ¶ 13.)

In response to the Judge's request, Defendant Sergeant Michael Taylor, who was much larger in stature compared to the Plaintiff, placed the Plaintiff in a hold by placing his right arm under her chest around her ribs and pushing his left hand into the center of her back and lifting the Plaintiff off the ground. (Compl. ¶ 14.) The Plaintiff, who suffered from disc herniations, prior broken ribs and a degenerative hip pleaded with Sergeant Taylor to allow her to walk out of the courtroom on her own. (Compl. ¶ 15.) Sergeant Taylor ignored her pleas and continued his hold on the Plaintiff, forcibly removing her from the courtroom. After carrying her out of the courtroom, Sergeant Taylor left the Plaintiff outside in tears. (Compl. ¶ 16.)

As a result of Defendant Sergeant Taylor's forcible removal, the Plaintiff allegedly sustained serious physical and emotional injuries. (Compl. ¶ 17.) The Plaintiff was unable to and may in the future be unable to attend to her usual duties and affairs. (Compl. ¶ 17.)

Subsequently, the Plaintiff filed the instant action against Defendants Township of Deptford, Deptford Township Police, Sgt. Michael Taylor and John Does 1-50. [Docket Item 1.] The Plaintiff alleges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that the Defendants used unnecessary and grossly excessive force in violation of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. The Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants's conduct violated her established rights under the New Jersey State Constitution as well. Third, the Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants' actions were negligent. Finally, the Plaintiff brings a cause of action for assault and battery.

The Defendants answered the complaint [Docket Item 4] and filed the instant motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) [Docket Item 7]. First, the Defendants argue that all claims against Sergeant Taylor should be dismissed because Sergeant Taylor is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity. Second, the Defendants argue that the Plaintiff is barred from asserting her common law tort claims because Plaintiff failed to comply with the notice requirements of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. Next, the Defendants argue that the Plaintiff failed to state a legally cognizable claim against the Township of Deptford under the United State Constitution or the New Jersey Constitution. Finally, the Defendants maintain that the Plaintiff failed to state a legally cognizable claim against the John Doe defendants.

The Plaintiff's opposition argues that the claims against Sergeant Taylor are proper because he is not entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity because Sergeant Taylor exceeded the scope of Judge Golden's order and the execution of the order is not a judicial act entitled to judicial immunity. The Plaintiff concedes that her negligence claim as well as her assault and battery claim are not sufficiently pled. The Plaintiff also concedes that she has not alleged sufficient facts to support a claim for municipal liability. However, the Plaintiff urges the court to dismiss these claims without prejudice and grant her leave to amend. Finally, the Plaintiff agrees that the claims against the fictitious John Doe police officers should be dismissed because it is apparent from Defendants' answer that Defendant Taylor was the officer who removed the Plaintiff from the courtroom.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), "will only be granted where the moving party clearly establishes there are no material issues of fact, and that he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." DiCarlo v. St. Mary Hosp., 530 F.3d 255, 259 (3d Cir. 2008). Where the movant alleges that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court applies the same standards as under Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe v. Government of Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991); Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 223 n.2 (3d Cir. 2004) (applying Rule 12(b)(6) standard to Rule 12(c) motion).

In order to give defendant fair notice, and to permit early dismissal if the complained-of conduct does not provide adequate grounds for the cause of action alleged, a complaint must allege, in more than legal boilerplate, those facts about the conduct of each defendant giving rise to liability. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) and 11(b)(3). These factual allegations must present a plausible basis for relief (i.e., something more than the mere possibility of legal misconduct). See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009). In its review of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., the Court must "accept all factual allegations as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).

The assumption of truth does not apply, however, to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations or to "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

B. Is Sergeant Taylor entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity or qualified immunity?

1. Absolute quasi-judicial immunity

As a general rule, judges acting in their judicial capacity are absolutely immune (in both their individual and official capacities) from suit for monetary damages under the doctrine of judicial immunity. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9 (1991). Judicial immunity can be overcome only for actions not taken in a judicial capacity, id., or for actions taken in a complete absence of all jurisdiction, id. at 11-12. Allegations that actions were undertaken with an improper motive diminishes neither their character as judicial actions nor the judge's immunity. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988).

Judicial immunity may extend to professionals who assist courts in their judicial function. See Hughes v. Long, 242 F.3d 121 (3d Cir. 2001). Quasi-judicial immunity is given only to public employees who perform judge-like functions and attaches when a public official's role is functionally comparable to that of a judge. Hamilton v. Leavy, 322 F.3d 776, 785 (3d Cir. 2003). "When judicial immunity is extended to officials other than judges, it is because their judgments are 'functionally comparable' to those of judges -- that is because they, too, 'exercise a discretionary judgment' as part of their function." Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, Inc., 508 U.S. 429, 436 (1993).

"Absolute immunity does not apply in every action against a judge or court personnel." Tucker v. I'Jama, 173 Fed. Appx. 970, 971 (3d Cir. 2006). Instead, the "touchstone" for the applicability of the doctrine of judicial immunity is "the performance of the function of resolving disputes between parties, or of authoritatively adjudicating private rights." Antoine, 508 U.S. at 435-36 (quoting Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 500 (1991) (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part)). The Supreme Court has stated that judicial immunity does not protect the "administrative, legislative, or executive" acts performed by judges. Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. at 227. Therefore, "'it [is] the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it, that informs[] [an] immunity analysis.'" Antoine, 508 U.S. at 435-36 (quoting Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. at 229 (holding judge's hiring practices not judicial in nature)).

The Supreme Court has long held that a judge's exercise of control over the courtroom, including the admission and expulsion of attorneys and litigants, is a judicial act. See Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 346-47 (1871) (judge's order expelling attorney from court was "in the lawful exercise and performance of his authority and duty as its presiding justice . . . [and] was a judicial act."); Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. at 12 ("[a] judge's direction to court officers to bring a person who is in the courthouse before him is a function normally performed by a judge."). Thus, a judge who presides in court and directs the removal of an attorney, party, witness or spectator performs a judicial act for which the judge has absolute judicial immunity.

The Defendants argue that Sergeant Taylor removed the Plaintiff from the courtroom pursuant to Judge Golden's order. Judge Golden was acting in his judicial capacity when ordering the removal of the Plaintiff. The Defendant argues that Sergeant Taylor should similarly be entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity because he was carrying out Judge Golden's directive in removing the Plaintiff from the courtroom.

The Plaintiff argues that Sergeant Taylor is not entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity. Specifically, the Plaintiff maintains she is not challenging Judge Golden's order of removal or her subsequent removal from the courthouse. Instead, the Plaintiff is solely challenging the manner in which Sergeant Taylor forcibly carried her out of the courtroom. The Plaintiff argues that Sergeant Taylor exceeded the scope of Judge Golden's order by using unnecessary and excessive force in removing her from the courtroom. The Plaintiff argues Sergeant Taylor's manner of removal violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and is not protected by quasi-judicial immunity.

A Circuit split exists with respect to whether a court officer is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity when the officer allegedly uses excessive force to remove a person from a courtroom pursuant to a judge's order. The Third Circuit has not addressed this issue.*fn1 Prior to addressing the competing Circuit opinions, it is first necessary to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Mireles v. Wako, 502 U.S. 9 (1991), which is central to each Circuit's analysis.

In Mireles, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "a judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error . . . or was in excess of his authority." Id. at 12-13. A public defender alleged that a state court judge violated his constitutional rights by ordering police officers to forcibly seize him and use excessive force to bring him into the judge's courtroom. Id. at 10. The public defender had failed to appear for the initial call of the judge's morning calendar. Id. The judge was allegedly "angered by the absence of attorneys from his courtroom" and subsequently ordered the police officers "to forcibly and with excessive force seize and bring plaintiff into his courtroom." Id. The officers then allegedly seized the plaintiff with unnecessary force and removed him backwards from another courtroom where he was waiting to appear, cursed him and called him offensive names. Id. Then, the officers unnecessarily slammed him through the doors and swinging gates into the judge's courtroom. Id.

The Supreme Court held the state court judge was entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Specifically, the Supreme Court emphasized that a "judge's direction to court officers to bring a person who is in the courthouse before him is a function normally performed by a judge . . . in the judge's judicial capacity."

Id. at 12. However, the Court noted that the "judge's direction to carry out a judicial order with excessive force is not a function normally performed by a judge." Id. (citations omitted). In reasoning that the judge was nonetheless entitled to judicial immunity, the Supreme Court maintained that the nature and function of the act, not the act itself, controls the judicial immunity analysis. The court also reasoned that the fact that the judge's order was carried out by court officers did not transform the judge's action from judicial to executive in character. Id. at 13. Rather, the court stated a "judge's direction to an executive officer to bring counsel before the court is no more executive in character than a judge's issuance of a warrant for an executive officer to search a home." Id. Therefore, the court held that while the judge exceeded his authority, he was nonetheless entitled to judicial immunity. Importantly, this decision did not address whether the court officers that executed the judge's order were also entitled to quasi-judicial immunity and this issue remains unaddressed by the Supreme Court.

The first circuit to squarely address this issue was the Eighth Circuit in Martin v. Hendren, 127 F.3d 720 (8th Cir. 1997). In Martin, the plaintiff and her son were appearing in municipal court on a traffic charge. The plaintiff, unasked by the judge, approached the bench twice and refused to sit down when the judge ordered her back. The judge then ordered the court officer to remove the plaintiff. A struggle then took place between the court officer and the plaintiff resulting in the plaintiff being struck in the face by the officer. Id. at 721. The judge then ordered the officer to "put the cuffs on her." Id. The plaintiff attempted to push the court officer and the court officer then flipped the plaintiff face down onto the floor, handcuffed her, pulled her to her feet by the handcuffs and her hair and then removed her from the courtroom. Id. The plaintiff then filed suit against the court officer.

The majority opinion held that the court officer was entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity. The majority first found that bailiffs enjoy absolute quasi-judicial immunity for actions specifically ordered by the trial judge and related to the judicial function. Id. at 721. The court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the court officer ceased to act in a quasi-judicial capacity when he carried out the judge's removal order using excessive force. Instead, the majority relied on the Mireles opinion and extended its reasoning to quasi-judicial immunity. Specifically, the majority found that while the officer may have exceeded the scope of the judge's order, the officer should not be deprived of judicial immunity "because the action he took was in error . . . or was in excess of his authority." Id. at 722 (quoting Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12-13). The majority further recognized the need for quasi-judicial immunity in this type of situation:

Because judges frequently encounter disruptive individuals in their courtrooms, exposing bailiffs and other court security officers to potential liability for acting on a judge's courtroom orders could breed a dangerous, even fatal, hesitation. For the criminal justice system to ...


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