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Lopez-Siquenza v. Roddy

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 31, 2014

MARK E. RODDY, ESQUIRE, et al., Defendants.

Benjamin Folkman, Esq., Folkman Law Offices, P.C., Cherry Hill, NJ, and James A. Barry, Esq., Michael A. Galpern, Esq., Locks Law Firm LLC, Cherry Hill, NJ, Attorneys for Plaintiff Carlos E. Lopez-Siguenza.

Tracy Riley, Esq., Law Offices of Riley & Riley, Mt. Holly, NJ, Attorney for Defendants Mark E. Roddy, Esquire, Detective John Imfeld and Detective James Hipple.

Brian P. Wilson, Deputy Attorney General State of New Jersey, Office of the Attorney General, Division of Law, Trenton, NJ, Attorney for Defendants Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office and Janet Gravitz.


JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Carlos Lopez-Siguenza claims he was falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted for the crime of Sexual Assault of a Minor based upon false evidence of the alleged victim's age. After he pleaded guilty, was imprisoned and thereafter deported, the falsity of the victim's birth certificate came to light and his conviction was set aside.

This matter comes before the Court upon a motion to dismiss by Defendants Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office ("ACPO") and Assistant Prosecutor Janet Gravitz ("Gravitz") [Docket Item 14] and Plaintiff's cross-motion to amend [Docket Item 30.]

The principal questions presented are whether Defendants ACPO and Gravitz (collectively "County Defendants") are entitled to immunity and whether Plaintiff's Complaint and proposed Amended Complaint state a cognizable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act ("NJCRA") based on violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Further, the Court must determine whether amendment naming Gravitz in her individual capacity would be futile.

Because County Defendants address Plaintiff's cross-motion to amend in their reply brief, and in the interest of efficiency, the Court will consider the merits of both motions. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant County Defendants' motion to dismiss and deny Plaintiff's cross-motion to amend.

II. Background

Plaintiff, Carlos E. Lopez-Siguenza, brought this action after his conviction for Sexual Assault of a Minor was vacated, but not before serving a three year prison term and being deported to El Salvador.

The facts set forth here are those alleged in Plaintiff's Complaint which the Court must accept as true for purposes of the instant motions. Plaintiff is a native of El Salvador, who at all relevant times was residing in Northfield, New Jersey as a Legal Permanent Resident. (Compl. [Docket Item 1] ¶¶ 1-2.) On January 24, 2003, Melissa Aguilar Cruz ("Cruz") reported to the police and/or her social worker that she was a minor who had sexual intercourse with Plaintiff at various times in 2002. (Id. ¶ 10.) Cruz and/or her guardians gave the police a handwritten Honduran birth certificate for an individual named "Melissa Gabriela Aguilar Guerrero, " which contained a Spanish language inscription for the date of birth, translated to English as March 3, 1987. (Id. ¶ 11.) The birth certificate contained a National Identification Number of "XXXXXXXXXXXXX." (Id.) The police relied on this birth certificate and assumed that Cruz was 14 years old and Plaintiff was 21 years old at the time they engaged in sexual intercourse. (Id. ¶ 12.) On March 12, 2003, Plaintiff was arrested by Detectives John Imfeld ("Imfeld") and James Hipple ("Hipple") and charged with two counts of Aggravated Sexual Assault, two counts of Child Abuse, and two counts of Endangering Child Welfare. (Id. ¶ 13.)

On July 8, 2003, Mark E. Roddy, Esquire ("Roddy"), acting as Plaintiff's defense attorney, requested from the prosecutors a "certified and/or notarized copy of the alleged victim's birth certificate, " but no such document was provided. (Id. ¶ 14.)

Plaintiff was indicted on one count of second degree Sexual Assault, one count of third degree Endangering the Welfare of a Child, and one count of fourth degree Child Abuse. (Id. ¶ 15.) On March 12, 2004, after being advised by Roddy that he had no chance of prevailing at trial, Plaintiff pleaded guilty to one count of second degree Sexual Assault of a Minor and was sentenced to three years in New Jersey State Prison. (Id. ¶ 16.) Plaintiff served his prison term, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, placed in removal proceedings, and deported to El Salvador. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.)

After Plaintiff's deportation, his mother hired an attorney, Jorge Coombs, Esquire ("Coombs"), to investigate Plaintiff's immigration case. (Id. ¶ 19.) Coombs noticed a discrepancy between the name Cruz gave police and the name on the birth certificate. (Id. ¶ 20.) Cruz gave her name to police as "Melissa Aguilar Cruz" rather than "Melissa Aguilar Guerrero." On July 28, 2011, Coombs sent a letter to Francisco Quezada ("Quezada"), Consul General of Honduras, in which he requested verification of the birth certificate of "Melissa Gabriela Aguilar Guerrero" with the National Identification Number "XXXXXXXXXXXXX." (Id. ¶ 21.) Coombs also sent an e-mail to the Honduran Consulate's staff attorney, Jose H. Palacios Guifaro, Esquire ("Guifaro"), requesting guidance on how to decipher the Honduran National Identification Number. (Id. ¶ 21.)

On August 2, 2011, Coombs received a letter from Quezada stating that his office could not verify the accuracy of the birth certificate, nor could his office find the name "Melissa Gabriela Aguilar Guerrero" or the National Identification Number "XXXXXXXXXXXXX." (Id.) On August 2, 2011, Coombs also received a response from Guifaro stating that he found a birth certificate for "Melissa Gabriela Andino Munoz" born on March 3, 1984 with a Honduran National Identification Number of "XXXX-XXXX-XXXXX." (Id. ¶ 23.) Coombs learned from the e-mail that digits five through eight in the identification number correspond to the person's year of birth. (Id.) Coombs then verified that "Melissa Gabriela Andino Munoz" is currently registered as living in southern New Jersey. (Id. ¶ 25.) On July 28, 2011, Coombs spoke with Jose Rivera Sinclair, an ex-boyfriend of Cruz, who stated that Cruz's age was well known in the community. (Id. ¶ 28.)

Plaintiff subsequently filed for Post-Conviction Relief, which was granted on August 2, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 29-30.) Prosecutors did not oppose the motion, taking the position that there was probable cause for each count of the indictment, but prosecuting the case would cause wear and tear on the mental and emotional state of Cruz and her family. (Id. ¶ 29.) On August 17, 2012, prosecutors moved for an order to dismiss the indictment against Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 31.)

Plaintiff filed this civil action on March 28, 2013. Plaintiff's Complaint alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the NJCRA by Defendants Atlantic City Police Department, Imfeld, Hipple, the ACPO, and Gravitz.[1] [Docket Item 1.] On June 27, 2013, County Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). First, County Defendants argue that the ACPO and Gravitz in her official capacity, are entitled to sovereign immunity and are not persons amenable to suit under section 1983 or the NJRCA. Second, County Defendants argue that Plaintiff fails to establish a Fourth Amendment violation. Third, County Defendants contend that the doctrines of absolute and qualified immunity shield the ACPO and Gravitz from liability.

On September 13, 2013, Plaintiff filed his brief in opposition and cross-motion to amend, naming Gravitz in her individual capacity. [Docket Item 30.] Plaintiff's proposed Amended Complaint contains additional factual allegations that (1) Gravitz undertook investigatory acts, directed the acts of others in obtaining the handwritten birth certificate, and failed to properly authenticate the birth certificate before seeking an indictment; and (2) Gravitz failed ...

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