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Gonzalez v. Cape May County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 31, 2015

Luis A. Gonzalez, Plaintiff,
v.
Cape May County, et. al., Defendants.

OPINION

JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, District Judge.

These matters come before the Court on Motions for Summary Judgment, filed on behalf of Defendants County of Ocean, "County of Ocean Probation Department, " "County of Ocean Department of Corrections, " "County of Ocean Sheriff's Department, " William Polhemus, Theodore J. Hutler, S. Metta and Paul Hoffman ("Ocean County Defendants") and on behalf of Defendants Cape May County, "Cape May County Sheriff's Office, " Sheriff Gary G. Shaffer, Officer Perednas, and Officer Atkinson. The Court has considered the written submissions of the parties and the arguments advanced at the hearing on these matters on February 18, 2015. For the reasons expressed on the record that day and those set forth below, Defendants' motions are granted in part and denied in part.

I. Factual Background

This case stems from the alleged false arrest and imprisonment of Plaintiff Luis Albert Gonzalez, which was carried out by Sherriff's Officers of Cape May and Ocean Counties pursuant to bench warrants identifying an individual named "Luis R. Gonzalez" who is not Plaintiff Luis Albert Gonzalez. With a few exceptions, the facts are not in dispute.

On July 12, 2010, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Ocean County issued two bench warrants for the arrest of a "Louis R Gonzalez" residing at 3700 New Jersey Avenue Unit D5, Wildwood, NJ. Plaintiff alleges that the County of Ocean Sheriff's Department sent the two warrants to the Cape May County Sheriff's Department and ordered the arrest of "Louis R Gonzalez." Am. Compl. ¶ 26. On or about August 6, 2010, Defendants Perednas and Atkinson, both Officers employed by the Cape May County Sheriff's Department, arrested Plaintiff Louis Albert Gonzalez at his residence at 3700 New Jersey Avenue Unit D5, Wildwood, NJ. Id. at ¶ 19.

Plaintiff Louis Albert Gonzalez alleges and it was eventually confirmed that he was not the individual specified in the warrants. Specifically, though Mr. Gonzalez's address and physical description match the individual identified in the warrants, his middle name, date of birth, and Social Security number differ from that of the individual identified in the warrants. Id. at ¶ 28. Both warrants provide that "Louis R Gonzalez" was born on April 1, 1965, and his Social Security number is XXX-XX-7396. Id. at ¶ 26. Plaintiff Louis Albert Gonzalez's middle initial is "A, " he was born on April 16, 1965, and his Social Security number is XXX-XX-4734. Id. ¶¶ 29-33. Plaintiff Louis Albert Gonzalez is not the father of the child that is subject of the warrants and that he has never fathered a child with the mother of the child that is the subject of the warrants. Id. at ¶¶ 34, 35.

Following Mr. Gonzalez's arrest, Defendants Perednas and Atkinson of the Cape May County Sheriff's Department transferred custody and control of Mr. Gonzalez to Defendant S. Metta, an Officer employed by the Ocean County Sheriff's Department. Id. at ¶¶ 13, 38. When Mr. Gonzalez arrived at the Ocean County Department of Corrections, Officer Paul Hoffman "booked" and "thorough[ly] searched" Mr. Gonzalez. Id. at ¶¶ 43-44. Mr. Gonzalez alleges that he was subjected to a "strip search" while in Defendants' custody. Id. at ¶ 37. When Mr. Gonzalez was "booked" at the Ocean County Department of Corrections, he had in his possession his Social Security card and his New Jersey driver's license, which states that his middle initial is "A" and his date of birth is April 16, 1965. Id. at ¶ 42.

Mr. Gonzalez alleges that while he was incarcerated in the Ocean County Correctional Facility, his family members drove to the facility to "attempt to have Plaintiff released from jail." Id. at ¶ 50. His family was told that he was arrested for failing to pay child support; in response, his family explained that Mr. Gonzalez did not owe child support and that "they" arrested and incarcerated the wrong person. Id. at ¶ 52.

According to his Amended Complaint, Mr. Gonzalez was "disabled" and "under consistent medical treatment for his medical conditions, " which include "four herniated disc and nerve damage." Id. at ¶ 47. Mr. Gonzalez claims he suffered from these medical conditions at the time of his arrest and incarceration, takes several medications on a daily basis to treat the aforementioned conditions, and was denied his "necessary" medication and medical treatment while under arrest and incarceration. Id. at ¶¶ 47-49. Following his release, he "immediately went to the hospital to receive the care and treatment he was denied" while in custody. Id. at ¶ 54.

Mr. Gonzalez's Amended Complaint alleges the following causes of action against all of the Defendants. Plaintiff first alleges that the individual defendants violated his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when, acting under color of state law, they deprived him of his right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and right to be free from punishment without due process of law in violation of the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as plead in Count I. Count II alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting that the Counties, County Departments, individual Sheriffs, and Warden Theodore J. Hutler failed to properly hire, train, and/or supervise which led to the depravation of Plaintiff's Constitutional rights. In Count III, Plaintiff alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all defendants for deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's serious medical needs. Counts IV and V respectively allege a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1988 against all defendants and a claim of false arrest and/or detention against the individual defendants. Counts VI and VII allege claims under the New Jersey State Constitution and New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 et. seq. and a negligence claim against all defendants, respectively. Count VIII pleads a claims for negligent hiring and supervision against the Counties, County Departments, Sheriffs, and Warden. Finally, Count IX pleads a claim against any John Doe (1-99) individual or state/government agency that may have injured and/or damaged Plaintiff in one of the aforementioned manners.

II. Summary Judgment Standard

A court will grant a motion for summary judgment 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, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c). Thus, this Court will enter summary judgment only when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c).

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, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (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 nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). 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. Andersen, 477 U.S. at 256-57. 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.

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 finder of fact. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

III. Analysis

As a preliminary matter, Officers John Does (1-99) are dismissed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 21, which provides in pertinent part: "parties may be dropped or added by order of the court on motion of any party or of its own initiative at any stage of the action and on such terms as are just." This rule permits the Court to exclude John Doe parties from an action when appropriate. Adams v. City of Camden, 461 F.Supp.2d 263, 271 (D.N.J. 2006) (citing Hightower v. Roman, Inc., 190 F.Supp.2d 740, 754 (D.N.J. 2002); Atlantic Used Auto Parts v. City of Philadelphia, 957 F.Supp. 622, 625 (E.D.Pa. 1997) (holding "fictitious party names may be used at least until reasonable discovery permits the actual defendants to assume their places..., ' however, ... [f]ictitious names must eventually be dismissed, if discovery yields no identities.'")).

Plaintiff filed this action on January 27, 2012. On December 3, 2013, the Magistrate Judge ordered completion of discovery by January 16, 2014. Given that the identity of the unnamed Defendants has not been found in the intervening three years since this suit was filed and/or in the year since completion of discovery, the interests of justice permit dropping those parties from the suit. Therefore, Officers John Doe (1-99) are dismissed from this action.

In addition, summary judgment is granted as to Defendants Ocean County Sheriff's Department, Ocean County Department of Corrections, and Cape May County Sheriff's Department. These entities are divisions of the Counties of Ocean and Cape May and the claims against these entities merge with the claims against each separate County. Generally, public entities that are not separate legal entities, but rather subunits of a local government or municipality, cannot be sued under § 1983. See, e.g., Peppers v. Booker, Civ. No. 11-3207, 2012 WL 1806170 (D.N.J. May 17, 2012) (noting that "[i]n a Section 1983 claim, police departments may not be named defendants in conjunction with municipalities because police departments are merely instruments of municipalities); Open Inns, Ltd. v. Chester County Sheriff's Dept., 24 F.Supp.2d 410, 417 n.13 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (noting that "the Chester County Sheriff's Department is a sub-unit of Chester County which cannot be sued [under § 1983] because it is merely an arm of the local municipality, and thus is not a separate judicial entity). Thus, insofar as Cape May's and Ocean's Sheriff's Departments and Ocean County's Department of Corrections are not separate legal entities, but divisions of the county, Plaintiff cannot sustain a separate §1983 claim against these Defendants and summary judgment is granted as to these claims entities.

Moreover, insofar as the "County of Ocean Probation Department" is not part of the County of Ocean but is a division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, it is a state agency. States and their agencies are immune from suit under § 1983, as they are not "persons" under the statute. See Will v. Michigan State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 109 (1989). The "County of Ocean Probation Department" is not a separate legal entity, but rather a state agency, Mr. Gonzalez cannot sustain his § 1983 claims against this Defendant and, as a result, summary judgment is granted.

A. Claims Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Qualified Immunity

Plaintiff's constitutional claims are governed by Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a civil remedy against any person who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights protected by the United States Constitution. See Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 120 (1992). Any analysis of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 should begin with the language of the statute:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to ...

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