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Worster-Sims v. Tropicana Entertainment, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

June 3, 2014

JAMIE DEE WORSTER-SIMS AND ASHLEY SIMS, H/W, Plaintiffs,
v.
TROPICANA ENTERTAINMENT, INC., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOEL SCHNEIDER, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the Motions for Leave to Amend Answers to Include a Third-Party Complaint Against Beau Cantera filed by defendants City of Atlantic City [Doc. No. 36], Tropicana Atlantic City Corp. ("Tropicana") [Doc. No. 40], and Officer Michael Jones [Doc. No. 45].[1] The Court received plaintiffs' opposition [Doc. Nos. 42, 50, 51] and defendants' replies [Doc. Nos. 48, 53, 54]. The Court recently heard oral argument. The subject three motions involve the same issue. Namely, whether the defendants in a police excessive force case may join a non-party who allegedly set into motion a "chain of events" that led the officer to strike the plaintiff. More specifically, whether defendants can join Beau Cantera who "poked" Officer Jones right before the Officer punched plaintiff in the face. The answer to these questions is no. Accordingly, for the reasons to be discussed, defendants' motions are DENIED.

Background

Plaintiffs filed the instant action on March 28, 2013, naming the following defendants: (1) Tropicana; (2) Providence AC, Inc. ("Providence"); (3) Metronome Hospitality Group ("Metronome"); (4) ABC Corporation(s) 1-10; (5) Atlantic City Police Officer Michael Jones; (6) City of Atlantic City; (7) Atlantic City Police Department; and (8) John Doe(s) 1-10. See generally Complaint [Doc. No. 1]. Plaintiff Jamie Worster-Sims asserts claims for assault, battery, negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against all defendants. Id . at ¶¶ 46-64. Worster-Sims also asserts claims for deliberate indifference to his medical needs and civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants Jones, the City of Atlantic City, the Atlantic City Police Department, and John Does 1-10. Id . at ¶¶ 65-86. Plaintiff Ashley Sims, Worster-Sims's wife, asserts a per quod claim against all defendants. Id . at ¶¶ 87-88.

Plaintiffs allege that in May of 2011, Worster-Sims and his cousin, Beau Cantera ("Cantera"), were forcibly removed from the Providence Atlantic City nightclub by Officer Jones and security personnel and/or employees of Tropicana. Id . at ¶¶ 29-31. Plaintiffs allege that while Worster-Sims was being pushed out of the nightclub, his shoe fell off. Id . at ¶ 33. Plaintiffs allege that while Worster-Sims "attempted to return to the interior of the nightclub... to retrieve his missing shoe... he was struck in the head with a closed fist by [d]efendant, [Officer] Michael Jones." Id . at ¶¶ 34-35. Plaintiffs claim that Officer Jones acted without justification and was not provoked by Worster-Sims. Id . at ¶ 38. Plaintiffs also allege that defendants acted with deliberate indifference to Worster-Sims's "obvious need for medical assistance" and that as a result of the attack he suffered serious and permanent injuries, including traumatic brain injuries. Id . at ¶¶ 41, 45.

On May 9, 2013, Officer Jones and the City of Atlantic City filed an answer asserting a counterclaim for attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and a cross-claim for contribution against Providence, Metronome, and Tropicana under New Jersey's Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law ("JTCL") (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:53A-1 to -5) and/or the Comparative Negligence Act of New Jersey (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:15-5.1 to -5.3). [Doc. No. 7]. Tropicana subsequently filed its answer asserting a cross-claim for contribution and/or indemnification against Providence, Metronome, Officer Jones, the City of Atlantic City, and the Atlantic City Police Department. [Doc. No. 10]. Tropicana also asserted a cross-claim for contractual indemnification against Providence and Metronome. Id . Providence and Metronome filed an answer asserting cross-claims for contribution and indemnification against Officer Jones, the City of Atlantic City, and the Atlantic City Police Department. [Doc. No. 15].

In the motions presently before the Court, defendants seek leave to amend their answers to include a third-party complaint against Cantera for contribution and/or indemnification under the JTCL and the Comparative Negligence Act of New Jersey. In sum and substance, defendants argue that Cantera "initiated the alleged incident when he approached Officer Jones... and proceeded to push his finger into Officer Jones's chest." Atlantic City Brief at 2 [Doc. No. 36]. Defendants claim they are entitled to contribution and/or indemnification from Cantera alleging that "[b]ut for the actions/conduct of... Cantera, the physical altercation would not have taken place, and [Worster-Sims] would not have brought claims against" defendants. Atlantic City Proposed Third-Party Compl. at ¶ 14 [Doc. No. 36]; Officer Jones Proposed Third-Party Compl. at ¶ 14 [Doc. No. 45]; Tropicana Proposed Third-Party Compl. at ¶ 14 [Doc. No. 40].

In opposition, plaintiffs argue that defendants' proposed amendments are futile. Plaintiffs argue, inter alia, that defendants fail to show "any nexus between Cantera's alleged breach of duty owed to" defendants and the injuries caused to Worster-Sims. Opp'n Br. at 4 [Doc. No. 50]. Plaintiffs also argue that the alleged breach of duty committed by Cantera in "making unwanted contact with a police officer... is completely independent of the claim that Officer Jones'[s] assault" violated Worster-Sims's civil rights. Id . at 5.

Discussion

Defendants' motions involve an intersection of Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a), which governs motions to amend the pleadings, and Fed.R.Civ.P. 14(a), which governs third-party practice. See Cnty. of Hudson v. Janiszewski, C.A. No. 06-319 (JAP), 2007 WL 2688882, at *3 (D.N.J. Sept. 13, 2007). Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a), leave to amend the pleadings "shall be freely given when justice so requires." Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). A court will exercise its discretion to deny a motion to amend only where it "is apparent from the record that (1) the moving party has demonstrated undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motives, (2) the amendment would be futile, or (3) the amendment would prejudice the other party.'" Janiszewski, 2007 WL 2688882, at *3 (quoting Hill v. City of Scranton, 411 F.3d 118, 134 (3d Cir. 2005)). Here, the Court finds there was no undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motives on the part of the defendants, and plaintiff will not be substantially prejudiced if defendants' motions are granted. Thus, the Court need only consider the futility of the proposed amendments.[2] An amended complaint is futile if it fails to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 231 (3d Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). To determine if an amendment is futile a court should use "the same standard of legal sufficiency as applies under Rule 12(b)(6)." Id . (citation omitted).

A motion for leave to file a third-party complaint impleading new parties is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 14(a) which provides that "[a] defending party may, as third-party plaintiff, serve a summons and complaint on a nonparty who is or may be liable to it for all or part of the claim against it." Rule 14(a)(1); see Spencer v. Cannon Equip. Co., C.A. 07-2437 (JBS), 2009 WL 1883929, at *2 (D.N.J. June 29, 2009) ("The purpose of Rule 14(a) is to avoid circuitry of action and multiplicity of litigation.") (citation omitted). Importantly, a third-party claim may only be asserted under Rule 14(a) "when the third party's liability is in some way dependent on the outcome of the main claim or when the third party is secondarily liable to [the] defendant." Janiszewski, 2007 WL 2688882, at *4 (citation omitted).

In the present motions, defendants seek to amend their answers to assert a third-party complaint against Cantera for contribution/indemnification pursuant to the JTCL and the Comparative Negligence Act. Pursuant to the JTCL:

Where injury or damage is suffered by any person as a result of the wrongful act, neglect or default of joint tortfeasors, and the person so suffering injury or damage recovers a money judgment or judgments for such injury or damage against one or more of the joint tortfeasors, either in one action or in separate actions, and any one of the joint tortfeasors pays such judgment in whole or in part, he shall be entitled to recover contribution from the other joint tortfeasor or joint tortfeasors for the excess so paid over his pro rata share....

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:53A-3. The Comparative Negligence Act modified the JTCL's pro-rata apportionment of liability among joint tortfeasors so that "[j]oint tortfeasors no longer share liability on a pro-rata basis but instead on the basis of proportion of fault as determined by the trier of fact." Dunn v. Praiss, 656 A.2d 413, 419 (N.J. 1995) ("The effect of the Comparative Negligence Act on contribution is to measure the remedy by percentage of responsibility rather than by number of culpable parties."). Under the JTCL, "joint tortfeasors" are defined as "two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or some of them." N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:53A-1. "[W]hile there may be contribution for joint liability even though the wrongs may not be common or concurrent... the statute makes clear that liability must be made for the same injury." Finderne Mgmt. Co. v. Barrett, 809 A.2d 857, 864 (N.J.Super. Ct. ...


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