The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle
This matter is before the Court on three motions for summary judgment: Defendant Officer Dean Gransden [Docket Item 36] Defendants City of Camden and Officer William Roberts [Docket Item 37] and Defendant Arturo Venegas [Docket Item 38] all have moved for summary judgment against both counts in the Complaint. Plaintiffs in this action are Victor Figueroa and Frances Palacio, who seek compensatory and punitive damages for violations of their Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable seizure pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arising from an encounter with Defendants Gransden and Roberts in Camden, New Jersey, on the evening of August 26, 2007. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants Gransden and Roberts arrested both Plaintiffs with excessive force, causing physical and psychological injury.
The principal questions for the Court raised by these motions are (1) whether there is a dispute of fact over whether Defendants Gransden and Roberts unreasonably used excessive force when arresting Plaintiffs or whether Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, and (2) whether a dispute of fact exists in the record regarding whether the officers' actions were caused, in part, by a custom or policy of Defendants City of Camden and Arturo Venegas. As explained in detail below, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have raised a dispute of fact regarding both issues, and will consequently deny all three motions for summary judgment.
The record on these motions contains the deposition testimony of several witnesses, many of whom recount material events differently. As the Court has been called upon to resolve motions for summary judgment, the Court will construe the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs as the non-moving parties. Egolf v. Witmer, 526 F.3d 104, 106-07 (3d Cir. 2008).
At approximately 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 26, 2007, Frances Maria Caraballo Quinones ("Maria") called her mother, Plaintiff Frances Palacio ("Ms. Palacio" or "Plaintiff Palacio") on the telephone. Loughry Cert. Ex. D., Frances Palacio Dep. at 12:3-10. On that evening, Ms. Palacio was at home with several family members, including her son, Angel Quinones, his daughter, Ms. Palacio's sister Carmen Palacio, and Carmen's daughter, Natasha. Id. In the phone call, Maria told Ms. Palacio that she had been beaten by her husband, Francisco Caraballo, again. Id. at 13:1-12. After hanging up the phone, Ms. Palacio told the other family members about it and they resolved to drive over to Maria's house, located at 310 North Dudley Street in Camden, New Jersey. Id. at 14:3-20. At the time, Ms. Palacio was 47 years old and her son Angel was 26. Palacio Dep. at 7:18-19; Gransden Ex. 1, offense report.
When they arrived at the house at 310 North Dudley, Ms. Palacio and the others found Maria and her young daughter waiting for them in the driveway of the house. Frances Palacio Dep. at 17:18-20; Carmen Palacio Dep. at 10:16-19. Carmen Palacio then called the Camden police to report the domestic abuse. Carmen Palacio Dep. at 10:19-20. The family members then went inside, and Frances or Carmen called Plaintiff Victor Figueroa ("Plaintiff Figueroa" or "Mr. Figueroa"), who was married to the sister of both Frances Palacio and Carmen Palacio, to tell him of the reported abuse and to ask for help. Figueroa Dep. at 15:3-16:3. Mr. Figueroa, who was approximately 58 years old on that date, resolved to drive to Melissa's house to help try to resolve the situation. Id. at 19:9-21.
Meanwhile, Francisco Caraballo, Maria's husband, had left the residence at 310 North Dudley prior to the arrival of Maria's family, and was walking away from the house while he also called the police to report a domestic disturbance. Loughry Cert. Ex. B, Caraballo Dep. at 15:6-16:7. Caraballo then encountered a Camden police officer on patrol nearby: Defendant Officer Roberts. Loughry Cert. Ex. A., Roberts Dep. at 47:1-8. Caraballo introduced himself as a Camden firefighter and explained that he was "having problems with [his] girlfriend." Id. at 47:4-6. Defendant Roberts then picked him up and escorted him back to the residence. Caraballo Dep. at 16:22-17:3. When they arrived back at 310 North Dudley, they met with at least one other Camden police officer who had been independently dispatched to the house, Defendant Officer Gransden. Gransden Dep. at 24:2-5.
Defendants Gransden and Roberts then escorted Caraballo into the house and began talking with Melissa and Caraballo. Palacio Dep. at 20:11-14. Most of the family members, along with Caraballo, were gathered in the kitchen. Roberts Dep. at 58:17-60:8; Palacio Dep. at 21:18-22:1. Some time later, Plaintiff Figueroa arrived at Maria's house and walked directly into the kitchen, reportedly without noticing the presence of the police officers. He walked up to Caraballo and attempted to punch him. Figueroa Dep. at 24:22-25:17. Witness accounts vary over whether Plaintiff Figueroa actually connected his punch with Caraballo's face or head, or whether Caraballo dodged out of the way of the swing.*fn1 Regardless, the Defendant police officers immediately announced that Plaintiff Figueroa was under arrest. Figueroa Dep. 27:16-17; Palacio Dep. 23:12-20.
Plaintiff Figueroa testified that at that point he immediately submitted to being restrained and offered no resistance. Figueroa Dep. 28:6-9. His account is echoed by those of Plaintiff Palacio, and several other family members who witnessed the events. Palacio Dep. 23:15-20; Frances Melissa Quinones Dep. 43:18-24; Carmen Palacio Dep. 17:17-24. Defendants Gransden and Roberts, however, report that Mr. Figueroa resisted being handcuffed and required the application of force (pressure point techniques and targeted strikes to the arms) to get him to relax his arms and permit the application of restraints. Gransden Dep. 29:13-15, 30:19-23; Roberts Dep. 61:1-20. As this matter is before the Court on Defendant motions for summary judgment, the Court will assume the truth of Plaintiffs' accounts of the events -- that Plaintiff Figueroa offered no resistance to being handcuffed.
The accounts of the witnesses continue to diverge after the application of restraints to Plaintiff Figueroa. Several witnesses, including Plaintiffs Figueroa and Palacio, testified that the Defendant police officers then, after they had restrained Mr. Figueroa in handcuffs, began to punch him in the back, torso and face, one on each side of him. Figueroa Dep. 28:16-29:1; Palacio Dep. 24:4-18; Carmen Palacio Dep. 16:13-17:24. They reportedly smashed his face into the stove top and then pushed him down on to the ground, all while he was unable to offer any resistance. Id.
The arrest and blows on Plaintiff Figueroa aroused the alarm of several of the witnessing family members, many of whom started yelling that the Defendant Officers should stop. Palacio Dep. 25:11-22. Angel Quinones, in particular, yelled that they had to stop because Mr. Figueroa had an aneurysm in his head and was at risk of serious injury if he were to be punched in the head. Id. In response, the officers then turned on Angel, restraining him in handcuffs and subsequently began beating him as well. Palacio Dep. 25:11-22.*fn2
Plaintiff Palacio then reported that she noticed Caraballo smirking at her, which infuriated her, so she swatted a water bottle out of his hand, spilling water. Palacio Dep. 26:13-27:5. One of the Defendant officers then announced that she was also under arrest, but took no immediate steps to attempt to restrain her. Palacio Dep. 27:5-15.
Both officers then lifted Plaintiff Figueroa from the floor by his arms, which were handcuffed behind him, and began escorting him out the front door. Palacio Dep. 27:15-16. Several witnesses observed them throw or drop Plaintiff on the concrete walkway leading up to the house as they were escorting him, causing him to fall on the concrete on his face (as he was unable to break the fall with his arms, which were restrained behind him). Palacio Dep. 29:1-8; Figueroa Dep. 32:1-3. They then threw Plaintiff Figueroa up against one of the police cars, pulled him back, opened the back door, and shoved him through the door head first, face down on the back seat, with his feet hanging out the door, and then slammed the door on his foot, breaking a toe. Figueroa Dep. 32:19-34:7; Palacio Dep. 36:17-37:9.
The officers then escorted Angel into another police car, during which time Plaintiff Palacio was yelling at them that what they were doing was wrong and that she would get them in trouble because she worked for the city. Palacio Dep. 30:21-31:10; Carmen Palacio Dep. 21:2-22:5. The officers yelled obscenities back at her until they had secured both Angel and Figueroa into separate cars. Id. Then, the officers "body slammed" Plaintiff Palacio into a chain-link fence, handcuffed her, and then punched her multiple times. Palacio Dep. 31:19-33:11. They then placed her in a third police car, and all three cars drove to the station for booking. Shortly after arriving at the police station, Plaintiff Figueroa was taken to a hospital to attend to his injuries, after which time he was returned to police custody for the night. Figueroa Dep. 39:10-40:20. Plaintiff Palacio suffered bruising and psychological injuries from the event. Palacio Dep. 40:3-41:14. Plaintiff Figueroa suffered more severe injuries including a broken toe, cuts and bruises on his face, hands and torso, and claims to be suffering from long-term neurological damage. 41:17-49:3.
Both Plaintiffs and Angel Quinones were charged with various assault and resisting arrest charges, which were subsequently dismissed. Jay Cert. Ex. I, Transcript of Proceedings on Apr. 3, 2009, State of New Jersey v. Francis Palacio, et al. Plaintiff Figueroa was charged with resisting arrest, and assaulting Officer Roberts, and assaulting Caraballo. Transcript at 5:21-6:2. The State, upon consultation with Officer Roberts, reported that it could not prove either of the first two charges, and reduced the third charge to "improper behavior" for attempting to punch Caraballo. Id. at 5:5-11. Therefore, the first two charges were dismissed and Plaintiff Figueroa pleaded guilty to the third. The charges against Angel of assaulting officer Gransden and resisting arrest were also dismissed. Id. at 10:9-11. Finally, the charges against Plaintiff Palacio of assault against Caraballo and improper behavior were likewise dismissed. Id. at 10:12-23.
After the events of August 26, 2007, Plaintiff Palacio filed a complaint with the Camden Police Internal Affairs unit. Palacio Dep. at 51:16-18. She did not remember what the outcome of the investigation was. Id. at 52:19-53:1. Defendant Roberts does not remember being interviewed or asked to provide a statement to internal affairs as a result of any civilian complaint. Roberts Dep. 79:8-86:11. In fact, Ms. Palacio's complaint is not recorded on the Index Cards recording the civilian complaints lodged against the Defendant ...