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Johnson v. Attorney General of The State

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 14, 2015

KENNETH JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DOUGLAS E. ARPERT, Magistrate Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on a Motion by Plaintiff to compel discovery from Defendants [Dkt. No. 31]. Defendants oppose Plaintiff's Motion [Dkt. No. 36]. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, an African-American male, alleges that he suffered racial discrimination by state government officials and by a state governmental entity in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff has been a member of the New Jersey State Police ("NJSP") since 1983 and currently holds the rank of Lieutenant. In short, Plaintiff alleges that unfounded disciplinary charges were filed against him with discriminatory intent and that those charges have been used by Defendants to prevent Plaintiff from retiring.

Prior to filing the present action, Plaintiff filed a similar action in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County (the "State Court Action"). The State Court Action was dismissed in 2011 and is presently on appeal. When Plaintiff filed his Complaint in the State Court Action, he held the rank of Detective. During the pendency of the State Court Action, Plaintiff was promoted to Sergeant, Sergeant First Class and most recently, Lieutenant.

The alleged events underlying the disciplinary charges filed against Plaintiff took place when he was promoted to Sergeant First Class and was given acting command of NJSP's Drug Trafficking South Unit (the "Unit"). According to Plaintiff, in May 2007, a cocaine dealer came to the attention of the Unit and a Digital Number Recording ("DNR") was issued for the suspect's phone. Plaintiff claims that the number of a law enforcement agent who lived across the street from the suspect appeared frequently on the list of numbers in the DNR. On January 5, 2008, Plaintiff was promoted to Lieutenant and assumed formal command of the Unit.

On January 10, 2008, Plaintiff received a report that a narcotics dealer had been taken into custody. When the dealer was arrested, Plaintiff learned the dealer claimed to have knowledge of a law enforcement agent engaging in illegal activity by field testing the purity of cocaine for a wholesale dealer. Plaintiff claims that based on his experience and knowledge of suspects claiming "they can deliver a dirty cop' to better their position" he was "skeptical" of the suspect's claims regarding the officer's alleged involvement in illegal activity. Am. Compl. at ¶ 14. Accordingly, Plaintiff believed the allegations against the officer were unsubstantiated and did not warrant reporting to his superiors and Plaintiff ordered his subordinates to proceed with the investigation and report to him immediately if any of the allegations were corroborated.

On January 11, 2008, Plaintiff received information substantiating the dealer's allegations and Plaintiff notified his commanding officer, Joseph Campbell.[1] Although Plaintiff claims there is no rule or regulation specifying a time frame within which a superior officer must be notified that a law enforcement officer is a suspect in criminal activity, disciplinary charges were filed against Plaintiff by Defendant Campbell based on Plaintiff's failure to timely notify his superiors of the allegations made by the dealer against the law enforcement officer. In June 2008, the formal documents charging Plaintiff's alleged misconduct were sent to Defendant Fuentes. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Fuentes failed to serve Plaintiff with the charges or act on them within the statutory period.

During the pendency of the disciplinary charges against Plaintiff, he has been ineligible for promotion. In 2011, Defendant Silver became Plaintiff's commanding officer. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Fuentes intentionally reassigned Plaintiff to Defendant Silver because he was "openly known as harboring animosity to African-Americas because of personal reasons." Am. Compl. ¶ 23. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Silver frequently and falsely demeaned Plaintiff's capabilities and intentionally caused Plaintiff to be transferred to another unit with a lengthy commute in order to inconvenience and harm Plaintiff.

Plaintiff further alleges that while under the command of Defendant Silver, a photograph of him in a uniform was included in a photographic array and identified by the complaining witness in an investigation into allegations of racial profiling. Plaintiff claims that because he had not worn a uniform in over twenty years, the use of his photograph in the array was "so bizarre... that it can only be concluded that such was done for nefarious purposes, to advance the racist agenda of the [Defendants]." Am. Compl. ¶ 26.

According to Plaintiff, his repeated attempts to retire have been denied by Defendant Fuentes. Plaintiff alleges that although Defendants claim that the pending charges against Plaintiff are preventing his retirement, Defendants are in fact withholding retirement from Plaintiff in an attempt to "coerce him to plead guilty to charges of which [he] is innocent." Am. Compl. ¶ 28. Further, Plaintiff claims that Caucasian members of NJSP "chargeable with infractions more serious than [P]laintiff have been permitted to retire" and have been given favorable treatment over minority members in matters pertaining to discipline and promotion. Am. Compl. at ¶ 31.

Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff alleges that he is a "victim of an ongoing pattern and practice of racial discrimination by [D]efendant NJSP under the supervision of [D]efendant Fuentes, through minions including [D]efendants Campbell and Silver." Am. Compl. ¶ 33. As a result of the alleged racial discrimination against Plaintiff, he claims to have suffered "economic harm, humiliation and physical pain and suffering."Am. Compl. ¶ 38.

In the present Motion, Plaintiff seeks six categories of discovery: (1) Defendant Silver's redacted personnel file; (2) database material for Defendants Silver and Fuentes; (3) and (4) statistical information on Lieutenants from January 2006 to January 2010; (5) Plaintiff's full disciplinary history; and (6) information on 34 Troopers who were allowed to retire during pending disciplinary proceedings.

While Defendants have agreed to provide Plaintiff with some of the requested discovery, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's assertion that minority troopers seeking to resign or retire during pending internal investigations or disciplinary proceedings were treated differently based on their race or ethnicity is unsupported by any evidence and that Plaintiff's present requests for information amount to a "fishing expedition." Dkt. No. 36 at p. 8. According to Defendants, although Plaintiff claims he has been prevented from retiring due to Defendant Fuentes' discriminatory actions, Plaintiff was offered and refused a proposed plea agreement in 2009 which would have resolved the pending charges and cleared Plaintiff for retirement.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

It is well established that the scope of discovery in federal litigation is broad. See FED. R. CIV. P. 26(b)(1). Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense. Id .; see also Pearson v. Miller, 211 F.3d 57, 65 (3d Cir. 2000). Moreover, information sought by the parties need not be admissible at trial ...


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