United States District Court, D. New Jersey
JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs Ella Baker, Benjamin Frye, Tattyana Baker, Rayion Baker's appeal [Docket Item 62] of Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider's August 21, 2014 Order [Docket Item 58] denying Plaintiffs' motion for leave to file a third amended complaint. The Court will affirm the August 21, 2014 Order because it was neither clearly erroneous nor an abuse of discretion. The Court finds as follows:
1. This action arises from two allegedly unlawful searches of Plaintiffs' home on November 5 and November 24, 2010. Plaintiffs claim that on November 24, 2010, while searching for an armed fugitive, Anthony Fontanez, members of the United States Marshals Service entered Plaintiffs' house with their guns raised, ordered Ella Baker to leave the house, put guns to the heads of ten year-old Rayion Baker and Tattyana Baker, threatened to kill Rayion Baker, handcuffed Benjamin Frye, and questioned all Plaintiffs for over two hours.
2. Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint on January 26, 2012, naming as defendants the United States Department of Justice and the United States Marshal Service. [Docket Item 1.] Plaintiffs alleged violations of the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985, as well as the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. On November 6, 2012, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint [Docket Item 10] naming the United States of America, the City of Camden ("the City"), Chief of Police John Scott Thompson, and various John Does as defendants, thereby eliminating the United States Department of Justice and the United States Marshal Service as parties. On January 17, 2013, the Court dismissed all claims against the United States. [Docket Items 21 & 22.] Plaintiffs filed a Second Amended Complaint [Docket Item 23] on February 15, 2013 asserting claims under the FTCA, state tort law, the United States and New Jersey constitutions, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985. The Court again dismissed all claims against the United States for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on July 15, 2013. [Docket Items 34 & 35.] As such, the City of Camden and Chief of Police Thompson are the only remaining named defendants.
3. On June 16, 2014, Plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to file a third amended complaint [Docket Item 51], which Defendants opposed [Docket Item 52.] Principally, Plaintiffs' proposed third amended complaint sought to add Lt. Pasqual Gianinni as a defendant in his individual capacity as leader of the Camden Police SWAT team that entered Plaintiffs' house on November 24, 2010. By Order entered August 21, 2014, Judge Schneider denied Plaintiffs' motion. [Docket Item 58.]
4. Judge Schneider found that Rule 16 governed Plaintiffs' motion because it was filed on June 16, 2014 "well after" the September 14, 2013 deadline to move to amend pleadings. Judge Schneider concluded that Plaintiffs failed to show good cause for their untimely filing because they were not reasonably diligent in identifying the individuals who entered Plaintiffs' home and it took two and a half years for Plaintiffs to move to join the leader of the SWAT team. Judge Schneider noted that Gianinni was identified as a relevant witness in the City's April 30, 2013 Rule 26 disclosures and he certified the City's answers to interrogatories on August 8, 2013. Yet, it was not until almost eight months later, on April 3, 2014 that Plaintiffs deposed Gianinni, and indeed, over two months thereafter, that Plaintiffs sought to join him as a defendant. Judge Schneider found that Plaintiffs would fail even under the more lenient Rule 15 standard because they caused undue delay that would result in substantial prejudice to Defendants and Gianinni if Plaintiffs' motion were granted.
5. Plaintiffs argue that they showed good cause under Rule 16 and that their delay in moving to amend the pleadings does not constitute a lack of diligence under Rule 15. Plaintiffs emphasize that they did not receive the City's answers to interrogatories until October, 2013, after the deadline for amendments had passed. Plaintiffs explain the delay in deposing Gianinni by noting the practice of deposing Plaintiffs first, as well as persistent scheduling issues. Plaintiffs contend that consideration of their diligence should focus on the period after Gianinni was deposed. Plaintiffs further argue that Defendants and Gianinni would not be prejudiced if their motion were granted because the proposed third amended complaint contains no new facts or theories and Gianinni has already participated in the discovery process. Finally, Plaintiffs contend that Judge Schneider held Plaintiffs to a standard of reasonable investigation that is inconsistent with Rule 11.
6. Defendants respond that the proposed amendment would cause prejudice to Defendants and Gianinni because the allegations therein assert that members of the Camden SWAT team committed the acts previously ascribed to the U.S. Marshals, thus requiring additional discovery at this late juncture. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have failed to show good cause for their delay in moving to amend the pleadings nearly one year after Gianinni was identified as a relevant witness and six-months after answers to interrogatories were served. Defendants contend that, because the proposed amended complaint asserts the new theory that Gianinni was personally liable for the misconduct alleged, he was not on notice as to Plaintiffs' claims and thus the proposed amended complaint cannot relate back to the date of original filing. As such, the statute of limitations has expired as to Ella Baker and Benjamin Frye. Defendants also argue that amendment would be futile because there is no evidence that Gianinni was personally involved in the allegedly wrongful conduct.
7. When a magistrate judge decides a non-dispositive motion, the "district court may modify the magistrate's order only if the district court finds that the magistrate's ruling was clearly erroneous or contrary to law." Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. , 785 F.2d 1108, 1120 (3d Cir. 1986); see also L. Civ. R. 72.1(c)(A)(1) ("A Judge shall consider the appeal... and set aside any portion of the Magistrate Judge's order found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law.").
8. A Magistrate Judge's finding is clearly erroneous when "although there may be some evidence to support it, the reviewing court, after considering the entirety of the evidence, is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" Kounelis v. Sherrer , 529 F.Supp.2d 503, 518 (D.N.J. 2008) (quoting Dome Petroleum Ltd. v. Emp'rs Mut. Liab. Ins. Co. , 131 F.R.D. 63, 65 (D.N.J. 1990); United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co. , 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). A ruling is contrary to law if "the magistrate judge has misinterpreted or misapplied applicable law." Id . Where a Magistrate Judge "is authorized to exercise his or her discretion, the decision will be reversed only for an abuse of discretion." Id.
9. Judge Schneider correctly identified and applied the relevant legal rules. Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a party may amend a pleading as a matter of course under certain circumstances, but otherwise must obtain the opposing party's consent or the court's leave. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15. The Rule provides that when leave is required, "[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so requires, " which has been interpreted to mean that amendment should be permitted when it will not prejudice defendants. Id .; Lorenz v. CSX Corp. , 1 F.3d 1406, 1414 (3d Cir. 1993) ("In the absence of substantial or undue prejudice, denial instead must be based on bad faith or dilatory motives, truly undue or unexplained delay, repeated failures to cure the deficiency by amendments previously allowed, or futility of amendment.").
10. Rule 16 empowers the Court to issue scheduling orders, which must be followed unless good cause is shown for altering them. See Dimensional Commc'ns, Inc. v. OZ Optics, Ltd. , 148 F.Appx. 82, 85 (3d Cir. 2005). A court is required to set a deadline for motions to amend or to join new parties, see Rule 16(b)(3)(A), and Judge Schneider set a reasonable deadline of September 13, 2013. "In determining whether good cause' exists, courts generally consider the diligence of the party seeking the modification of the scheduling order." Duran v. Merline , 923 F.Supp.2d 702, 732 (D.N.J. 2013). "[T]he Rule 16(b) standard controls any decisions to alter a scheduling order for purposes of making pleading amendments and it must be satisfied before determining whether an amendment should be permitted under Rule 15." 6A Wright, Miller, & Kane, et al., Fed. Prac. & Proc. § 1522.2 (collecting cases).
11. The Magistrate Judge has the primary responsibility for case management and non-dispositive motions, including discovery motions, in civil cases in this Court. L. Civ. R. 72.1(a)(1), (3). Thus, this Court maximizes the use of Magistrate Judges in civil case management. In the present case, as is overwhelmingly typical in most civil cases, Judge Schneider has convened the initial conference under Rule 16, Fed.R.Civ.P. and L. Civ. R. 16.1, as well as subsequent conferences in person and by telephone directed to case management and discovery concerns. [See, e.g., Docket Items 29, 32, 33, 36, 37, 39, 40, 42, 43, 45, 48, 50, 57, 58.] When the Magistrate Judge has acquired such detailed knowledge of the case, especially high deference to case management determinations is warranted.
12. In the present case, Judge Schneider's denial of Plaintiffs' motion for leave to file a third amended complaint was neither clearly erroneous nor an abuse of discretion. Beginning with Rule 16, Judge Schneider reasonably concluded that Plaintiffs failed to show good cause to alter the September 13, 2013 deadline for amending pleadings. Plaintiffs were not diligent in their efforts to identify members of the SWAT team who entered their home despite knowing from the outset that their identities were integral to their claims. Although the Court is mindful of the apparent difficulties in identifying these members, Gianinni's identity, if not his role, was evident months before the expiration of the amendment period. Gianinni was identified as a relevant witness in the City's Rule 26 disclosures served on April 30, 2013. Gianinni certified the City's answers to interrogatories on August 8, 2013, in which he was clearly identified as "the SWAT team leader." (Def. Ex. 3 [Docket Item 64] ¶ 9.) Even though Defendants failed to serve their answers to interrogatories until October, 2013, after the deadline for amendments passed, Plaintiffs did not request an extension of the deadline. ...