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Sadowski v. Gloucester Township

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 19, 2014

GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP, et al., Defendants.


JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on motion of Defendants Ernest Basile, David Belcher, John Bullock, Gloucester Township, Gloucester Township Police Department, Joseph Kaighn, Timothy Kohlmeyer, Thomas Ritz, and John Stollsteimer [37] for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The Court has considered the written submissions of the parties and the arguments advanced during the hearing in this matter on May 5, 2014. For the reasons expressed on the record that day, and those that follow, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is denied in part.

I. Jurisdiction

This case is a civil action over which the district court has original jurisdiction based on a question "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Plaintiff Patrice Sadowski asserts a violation of her civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In addition, the preamble of the Complaint states that the matter is being brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986 and 1988.[1] However, the Complaint contains one count alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the form of (1)Unlawful/False Seizure/Arrest and (2) Excessive Force. There is reference to a Monell claim in the Complaint. With respect to Plaintiff's state law claims, this Court has supplemental jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

II. Background

This case is related to Ronald Hartman v. Gloucester Twp., et al., Civil Action Number 12-2085, which is currently pending before this Court. Plaintiff Patrice Sadowski ("Sadowski") and Ronald Hartman (Hartman") were working from Hartman's home on April 9, 2010. Both were employees of the United States Department of the Treasury in the Internal Revenue Service Division and were permitted to telecommute, i.e., perform their job duties from a location outside the office. Hartman resides in Gloucester Township, New Jersey.

On April 9, 2010, the Gloucester Township Police claim that a 911 call was generated from the Hartman Residence and that the caller "hung up." This type of 911 call is also referred to as an "abandoned" 911 call. The Township's protocol requires that a police officer be dispatched to the residence to investigate whether the call was made in error or by someone in need. As a result, Gloucester Township Police Officer David Belcher ("Belcher") went to the Hartman residence and knocked on the door.

What happens next is in dispute. The version of events recounted by both Sadowski and Hartman differ from Belcher's version, and later on, from the version of events recounted by the other responding officers. In general terms, Officer Belcher claims that when he responded to the Hartman residence, Hartman acted suspiciously, would not let him enter the house, gave vague answers to his investigatory questions, and insisted that Belcher obtain a warrant to enter the house. Because an abandoned 911 call was generated from Hartman's residence, Belcher contends that he was trying to ascertain whether the call came from someone in need inside of the residence. After he met Hartman, he claims the circumstances were suspicious and called for backup out of concern that something was wrong. Eventually, the police entered the house and arrested Hartman-as detailed in the Court's Opinion in Ronald Hartman v. Gloucester Twp., et al., Civil Action Number 12-2085. The eventual arrest of Hartman is not relevant to the matter at hand. However, the events leading up to Hartman's arrest are germane to Sadowski's case and are recounted here. On summary judgment, the facts are reviewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, here Sadowski. From that perspective, the facts of her case are as follows.

Hartman and Sadowski were working in separate areas of the house on the morning of April 9, 2010. They were alone and both deny placing a 911 call, errantly or for any need of assistance. Sadowski Dep. at 29:6-8; Hartman Dep. at 45:2-4. Belcher arrived at the Hartman residence and agrees that, from the outside of the house, he did not see or hear any signs of distress or anything indicating an emergency. Belcher Dep. at 24:22-22:4. Belcher knocked on the front door and Hartman answered.[2] Importantly, Sadowski testifies that she accompanied Hartman to the front door to speak with Belcher. Sadowski Dep. 31:9-13. Hartman also testified that Sadowski accompanied him to the door. Hartman Dep. at 50:16-19, 51:9-22.

According to both Sadowski and Hartman, the door was open and Belcher had an unobstructed view of both Hartman and Sadowski.[3] They assured Belcher that all was well and that they did not call 911. Sadowski Dep. at 35:12-36:1; Hartman Dep. at 50:20-51:8. Belcher was speaking in a raised voice and demanding to enter the home. Sadowski Dep. at 31:17-21, 32:23-32:7; Hartman Dep. at 51:23-52:7, 52:15-20, 52:8-23. Both Sadowski and Hartman characterize Belcher as belligerent and claim that he screamed at them, saying multiple times that he can enter any house anytime. Id.

Belcher then asked Hartman for identification, and Hartman went upstairs to get his federal identification and his wallet. Hartman Dep. at 55:19-23, 56:8-57:10, 54:24-55:10. In the meantime, Sadowski and Belcher spoke at the door. Sadowski claims that Belcher requested entry and stated that he needed to check the house for dead bodies. Sadowski Dep. at 34:12-16. As Hartman was coming back to the door, Sadowski claims that Belcher said "well, okay then" and walked away. Sadowski Dep. at 34:24-35:11. At this point Sadowski believed Belcher was gone and the "incident" was over; she and Hartman resumed working. Id. at 38:1-17; Hartman Dep. at 58:23-59:7.

Approximately ten minutes later, the residence telephone rang and was answered by Sadowski. Sadowski Dep. at 39:17-40:2; Hartman Dep. at 60:11-22. It was a Gloucester Township Police Officer asking Sadowski to come outside with her keys. Sadowski Dep. at 40:4-9. Sadowski exited the residence through the back sliding glass doors and claims that, as she proceeded to the front of the house, she was met by Gloucester Township Police Officer John Stollsteimer ("Stollsteimer") in "full assault stance" with his weapon drawn and pointed at Sadowski's face. Sadowski Dep. at 40:14-19, 42:24-43:6. Sadowski claims that the weapon was pointed at her for almost fifteen seconds. Id. at 76:7-77:12. Sadowski, who was confused, said "what in God's name are you doing?" Id. at 41:7-11. Stollsteimer laughed and said "yeah, right, what am I doing." Id. at 41:13-14. Sadowski was then escorted to the front of the house where she encountered another police officer and Belcher. Id.

By this time there were several officers on the scene. Sadowski was "peppered with questions" about who else was in the house, who owned the cars in the driveway, who they worked for, what they were doing, etc. Id . Sadowski answered their questions and assured them that there were no weapons in the house and that nothing was wrong. Id. at 41:15-42, 42:3-10. At this point, the record is unclear as to the nature of the officers' concern. If domestic violence was suspected, Sadowski was now safely out of the house.

Defendants claim that after Sadowski exited the house, she told them that Hartman was acting strange and that Hartman's wellbeing was now at issue. However, Sadowski denies making such a statement. Although you can hear an officer on the audio telling dispatch that Sadowski said Hartman was irrational, you never hear Sadowski's voice on the audio. Def. Exs. L and O (dispatch call and transcript). Throughout her interaction with the police, Sadowski claims that she told them repeatedly that nothing was wrong, that there were no weapons in the house, and that it was unnecessary for the officers to enter the house. Id. at 43:6-16, 46:17-23.

Then the Officers asked Sadowski if she had a key to the residence and she replied yes; the large key ring was hanging by her side. She claims that one of the officers took the keys to Hartman's residence without her consent and directed her to stand in one spot. Id. at 46:24-47. She was prohibited from approaching the door to coax Hartman outside; she claims Hartman would have come at her insistence. Sadowski describes being told to stand "right there" and that she was surrounded by the police officers. Id. at 80:17-81:9. She claims that she was not free to leave. Despite her protests ("What in God's name are you doing"), she claims the officers were laughing and acting cavalier. In total, she estimates being "detained" at the direction of the officers for almost 45 minutes; this time includes prior to, during, and after the eventual arrest of Hartman. Id. at 81-82.

Sadowski claims she was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment because she felt that she was not free to leave. Her excessive force claim is related to the show of force by Stollsteimer in "assault stance." Her illegal seizure claim relates to the excessive force exhibited by Stollsteimer and the detainment by the other officers as they attempted to gain entry into Hartman's home. She argues that there is no reasonable suspicion, as required by Terry or probable cause for the length of the seizure. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is denied in part.

III. Summary Judgment Standard

"Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Pearson v. Component Tech. Corp. , 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (a). The Court will enter summary judgment in favor of a movant who shows that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and supports the showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations... admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c)(1)(A).

An issue is "genuine" if supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id . In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the ...

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