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Badillo v. Amato

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 28, 2014

JORGE BADILLO, Plaintiff,
v.
VICTOR AMATO, et. al., Defendants.

OPINION

FREDA L. WOLFSON, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jorge Badillo ("Plaintiff" or "Badillo") is purportedly a priest of the Santeria religion, and as a part of his religious beliefs, Plaintiff claims that he practices ritualistic sacrifice of animals. The instant civil rights action arises out of charges brought against Plaintiff for animal cruelty by Chief Officer Victor Amato ("Chief Amato) of the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the "SPCA")(collectively, the "SPCA Defendants"). In addition to including the SPCA Defendants in this case, Plaintiff names the following as defendants: the Monmouth County Sheriff Department, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and Monmouth County Sheriff Captain Martin, Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor John Doe, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni, Monmouth County (the "Monmouth County Defendants"), Officer Garham and Freehold Boro Police Department (the "Freehold Defendants")(collectively, "Defendants"). In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants, collectively, violated his right to religious expression in violation of his First Amendment rights and conspired to deprive Plaintiff of equal protection under the law due to his religious beliefs and practices in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants violated his right to be free from illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Before the Court are three separate motions to dismiss filed, respectively, by the Monmouth County Defendants, the SPCA Defendants and the Freehold Defendants. For the reasons set forth below, the motions to dismiss filed by both the Monmouth County Defendants and the Freehold Defendants are GRANTED. The SPCA Defendants' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as follows: the SPCA is dismissed as a defendant, as well as the § 1985 claim against Chief Amato. The only claims remaining are Plaintiff's § 1983 claims, pursuant to the First and Fourth Amendments, against Chief Amato.

BACKGROUND

On a motion to dismiss, the Court recounts the facts as alleged in the Complaint and takes them as true. On March 17, 2011, Captain Martin of the Monmouth County Sheriff's Department responded to Plaintiff's residence with a Canine Officer to execute an unrelated domestic violence warrant and search for a gun that Plaintiff's brother was alleged to have hidden at Plaintiff's home. Compl., ¶ 12. In the course of executing the warrant, Captain Martin and the Officer searched the shed located in Plaintiff's backyard. At the entrance of the shed, they observed dead chickens, and inside the shed, Captain Martin observed Plaintiff's Santeria temple. Id. at ¶ 13. Plaintiff was neither arrested nor cited for any violation of the law by these Monmouth County officers.

On March 18, 2011, Captain Martin allegedly contacted co-defendant Chief Amato of the SPCA, and reported "possible animal cruelty." Id. at ¶14. Later that day, in response to the phone call, the Monmouth County Sheriff's Department dispatched Officer Duda - who is not named as a defendant - to accompany Chief Amato to investigate the incident. Officer Garham of the Freehold Boro Police Department also accompanied them. Upon arrival, Plaintiff alleges that "Chief Amato [alone] went around the back of the house, opened the gate and let himself in the fenced backyard without permission or a warrant and began taking pictures of the dead animals and the Orishas."[1] Id. at ¶ 16. At the front door, Officers Duda and Garham explained to Plaintiff that "they were there about the chicken." Id. at ¶ 17. Plaintiff explicitly avers that Officers Duda and Garham "stayed on the other side of the yard, did not get involved in photographing the animals or the Orishas and did not enter the temple." Id. at ¶ 38. During this time, Plaintiff's sister, Leyda Badillo, allegedly told Chief Amato that the chickens had been sacrificed as part of their religion. Having not examined any of the animal remains or seized them as evidence, Chief Amato allegedly responded that they "had no right to practice Santeria in Monmouth County or in New Jersey or anywhere in the United States." Id. at ¶ 18. Also, Plaintiff claims that Chief Amato indicated that "he was familiar with Santeria, that he targeted Santeros and had just arrested two Santeros in Spring Lake recently." Id. at ¶ 24.

Ms. Badillo then placed a call to the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office. Plaintiff avers that the Assistant Prosecutor with whom his sister spoke (named in the Complaint as "John Doe", hereinafter referred as "AP Doe") indicated that Chief Amato was within his rights and that the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office would not intervene. Id. at ¶ 20.

After photographing the recently sacrificed chickens and "two bird heads that were drying for sacrificial use and a dead pet turtle what was being kept outside, " Chief Amato inquired whether there were "any other animals around." Id. at ¶ 21. Chief Amato also saw a live pet rabbit. Id . Plaintiff responded that there were three guinea hens that he had bought from a farm and Chief Amato allegedly demanded to see them. Thereafter, Plaintiff alleges that Chief Amato ordered Plaintiff to return the guinea hens and a pet rabbit to a farm and properly dispose of all of the dead animals on the property. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 30. According to Plaintiff, Chief Amato threatened to arrest Plaintiff if Plaintiff did not follow his instructions.

According to the Complaint, Chief Amato returned the next day and left nine municipal court summonses for both animal abuse and neglect in Plaintiff's mailbox, and allegedly, contacted the Asbury Park Press and told them about the summonses. Apparently, the paper printed an article about Plaintiff's religious practices and his home address. Id. at ¶ 39. As a result of the article, Plaintiff claims that his home and cars were vandalized, and that his family was threatened. Id. at ¶ 40. Plaintiff also complains that the unlawful criminal charges adversely effected his ability to adopt two children through the Department of Children and Family Services. Id. at ¶ 41.

The criminal charges were resolved in municipal court in Freehold when Plaintiff pleaded guilty to one count of neglect of the pet rabbit and paid a two-hundred dollar fine, while the rest of the summonses were dismissed. Because of this incident, Plaintiff brings the instant action against Defendants. Plaintiff asserts two causes of action under the Civil Rights Act: 1) violations of Plaintiff's First Amendment right to free exercise of religion pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and 2) a conspiracy to violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). On the conspiracy claim, Plaintiff accuses Captain Martin and Chief Amato of conspiring to deprive his rights, which conspiracy was furthered by Assistant Prosecutor John Doe, who "had supervisory authority to restrain Chief Amato's behavior but chose to ratify it instead." Compl., ¶ 56. Plaintiff seeks money damages, as well as an injunction to prevent Defendants from targeting Santeros for discriminatory prosecution of animal cruelty laws and undergo sensitivity training. Id. at p.6.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard of Review

Under Rule 12(b)(6), "courts are required to accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party." Phillips v. Cnty. Of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing In re Rockefeller Ctr. Props. Secs. Litig. , 311 F.3d 198, 215-16 (3d Cir. 2002)). However, the factual allegations set forth in a complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The pleading must contain more than "labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action...." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Thus, a complaint will survive a motion to dismiss if it contains "sufficient factual matter, as accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id . (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570) (internal citations and quotations omitted). "A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.

The Court first turns to the SPCA Defendants' motion to dismiss.

II. The SPCA Defendants

A. Chief Amato

The thrust of Plaintiff's complaints involves Chief Amato's investigatory conduct. Plaintiff accuses Chief Amato of violating Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment right by entering and searching Plaintiff's dwelling without a warrant or probable cause. In addition, Plaintiff claims that Chief Amato blatantly and knowingly disregarded Plaintiff's First Amendment right by issuing summonses related to Plaintiff's religious sacrifice of animals, namely, chickens, guinea hens and a turtle. Moreover, Plaintiff claims that Chief Amato maliciously, with the intent to cause harm to Plaintiff, informed a local paper regarding Plaintiff's religious practice and provided the newspaper with Plaintiff's address. Chief Amato disputes the allegations, and maintains, at the outset, that he is entitled to qualified immunity.

The doctrine of qualified immunity provides that officers, such as Chief Amato[2], may be shielded from liability in a civil rights suit if their conduct does not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Consequently, the qualified immunity standard is one of "objective legal reasonableness." Harlow , 457 U.S. at 818. The protection of qualified immunity exists "regardless of whether the government official's error is a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact." Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (citation omitted). To determine whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity, a court applies either or both of the two prongs of analysis outlined in Saucier v. Katz , 533 U.S. 194 (2001), using the flexible approach endorsed in Pearson. Id. at 228. One prong asks whether "taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury... the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right." Saucier , 533 U.S. at 201. The other prong asks "whether the right was clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.'" Id . In other words, "qualified immunity is applicable unless the official's conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right." Pearson , 555 U.S. at 232 (citation omitted).

Because Plaintiff claims two separate violations of his constitutional rights - Fourth and First Amendment rights - under the qualified immunity analysis, the issue of the alleged illegal search and seizure is separately addressed from the ...


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