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Hartman v. Gloucester Township

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 19, 2014

RONALD HARTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Motions of Defendants Ernest Basile, David Belcher, John Bullock, Gloucester Township, Gloucester Township Police Department, Joseph Kaighn, Timothy Kohlmeyer, Thomas Ritz, and John Stollsteimer [41] for Summary Judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 and of Plaintiff Ronald Hartman ("Hartman") [44] For Partial Summary Judgment as to Unconstitutional Entry/Search of Residence. 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 and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.

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 Ronald Hartman asserts a violation of his 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. 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 Patrice Sadowski v. Gloucester Twp., et al., Civil Action Number 12-2083, which is currently pending before this Court. Hartman's Complaint consists of three counts: Count I Unlawful Seizure/Unlawful Arrest, Malicious Prosecution, Abuse of Process, Excessive Force, Unlawful Entry/Search, Failure to Supervise, and other Monell violations in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Constitution; Count II violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1986 for Defendants' refusal to prevent an unconstitutional act and; Count III violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 conspiracy to conceal unconstitutional conduct.

The Court will largely incorporate the background section of its Opinion in Sadowski's case because the facts leading up to Hartman's arrest are relevant to the pending motions. Patrice Sadowski ("Sadowski") and 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 and began working for the Internal Revenue Service in January, 1972.

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. Here, both parties move for summary judgment, however, Hartman's motion is only as to the narrow claim of whether the warrantless entry into his home is unconstitutional. Following are the facts viewed in a light most favorable to Hartman. The facts viewed in a light most favorable to Defendants are recounted in the analysis of Hartman's motion.

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. Hartman contends that he and Sadowski were working independently and that they had very little communication prior to Belcher's arrival. Hartman Dep. 44:10-13. 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.[1] Significantly, Sadowski testifies that she accompanied Hartman to the front door to speak with Belcher. Sadowski Dep. 31:9-13. Hartman also testifies 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.[2] 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.

No one disputes that Hartman was insistent that Belcher not enter the house without a warrant. 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. Belcher was trying to gain entry into the house "for a community caretaking issue" and believed that he "had every right to enter [the] house whether or not [Hartman] let [him] or not." Belcher Dep. at 49:8-23. 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.

Belcher then radioed for backup and states that at this point in time, he had already made the decision to enter the house. Belcher Dep. 78:8-11, 75:3-15.15. All of the police officers agree that upon arrival on the scene of Hartman's house, there were no outward signs of an emergency. See Bullock Dep. at 16:12-16, 17:24-18; Stollsteimer Dep. 29:11-14, 29:15-18; Kohlmyer Dep. 21:1-20; Ritz Dep. 14:24-15:10; Basile Dep. 25:23-26:8, 29:4-16; Kaighn Dep. 26:16-27:14. Officers Kaighn and Basile were able to see Hartman through a window and reported that nothing was going on in the house from their vantage point. Belcher Dep. 99:14-100:8. 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. The call was from 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. According to Belcher, she admitted that she accidentally dialed 911. Belcher Dep. 92:13-93:7, 95:5-13. 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 which caused Hartman's wellbeing to become a concern. However, Sadowski denies making such a statement. Although you can hear an officer on the radio telling dispatch that Sadowski said Hartman was irrational, you never hear Sadowski's voice on the radio. Def. Exs. L and 0 (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 outside at her insistence. Other officers continued to arrive on the scene, including Kohlmyer who arrived with a Pepperball Launching System. Kohlmyer Dep. 12:10-22, 13:9-22.

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. The officers, Bullock, Kohlmyer, Stollsteimer, Ritz and Belcher devised a plan to enter the house. Kohlmyer prepared the Pepperball Launching System and Ritz lined up with a ballistic shield. Kohlmyer Dep. 15:19-16:19, Stollsteimer Dep. 65:6-24. Stollsteimer had his gun drawn and was in front of Belcher. Belcher Dep. 114:1-2.

Stollsteimer agrees that as they began to approach to door, there were no signs or sounds of an emergency and the officers did not suspect any criminal activity. Stollsteimer Dep. 70:15-71:11-24. Belcher testified that the officers were going to enter the home at this point regardless of what happened at the door. Belcher Dep. 103:24-104:8. Hartman contends that the officers were kicking the door and that he was able to make this determination by observing the force of the door as it was moving. He yelled for them to stop and indicated that if the door was broken, he would sue the police officers. Hartman Dep. at 68:10-15. Hartman was trying to unlock the door with the inside key and tried to jiggle the handle, to open the finicky door. Id. at 70:9-18, 71:1-72:1. The officers asked him to stop holding the door knob and he complied. Id. at 73:9-13.

Then the officers rushed through the door, knocking Hartman all the way into the kitchen. Id. at 74:1-10. Hartman states that Officer Ritz fell on top of him and the ballistic shield wielded by Ritz was between their bodies. Id. at 42:9-43:2. Almost immediately, Hartman was pepper sprayed. Id. at 75:13-16. He testifies that he was kicked in the face by Officer Ritz. Id. at 80:4-17, 81:16-21. He tried to shield himself and claims that as he was being handcuffed, Kohlmyer pepper sprayed him again. Id. at 79:5-16.

Hartman was escorted out of the house and taken to the police station. There, he was charged with resisting arrest, aggravated assault on a police officer and obstruction. The basis for the aggravated assault charge was an injury to Kohlmyer, who testified that during the entry into the residence, he fell and injured his hand and shoulder. Kohlmyer Dep. 40:10-15, 42:13-20, Ex. F 65:4-68:6; Summons, Ex. M. Kohlmyer does not indicate that he was pushed by Hartman. The resisting arrest charge stems from Hartman's alleged flailing and struggling during the arrest. Belcher Dep. 146:14-19. All of the charges were dropped. Hartman Dep. 99:5-106:22.

For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is denied in part. Hartman's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is denied.

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 he 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 non-moving 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 light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id .; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc. , 870 F.Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 256-57. "A nonmoving party may not rest upon mere allegations, general denials or... vague statements....'" Trap Rock Indus., Inc. v. Local 825, Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs , 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc. , 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991)). Indeed,

the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.

Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322. That is, the movant can support the assertion that a fact cannot be genuinely disputed by showing that "an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the [alleged dispute of] fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2).

In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the Court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the fact finder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc. , 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

IV. Discussion

Defendants move for summary judgment on the following grounds.[3] As to Hartman's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Defendants argue that summary judgment is warranted on Hartman's claims of illegal search and seizure and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, as well as on Hartman's claim of unlawful seizure, false arrest, and malicious. Defendants also invoke the defense of qualified immunity. In addition, Defendants Gloucester Township and the Gloucester Township Police Department argue that summary judgment is warranted as to Hartman's Monell claim. Finally, Defendants argue that summary judgment is warranted as to Hartman's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and § 1986, Hartman's claims of conspiracy and violations of the New Jersey Constitution.

Hartman moves for partial summary judgment on the ground that the warrantless entry into his home violates the Fourth Amendment. Because Hartman's motion is related to Defendants' arguments in favor of summary judgment on the same issue, both motions will ...


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