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Wife v. Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 8, 2015

JOHN GREER and MARY GREER Husband and Wife, Plaintiffs,
v.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE, DETECTIVE FRANCINE WEBB, NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE, NEW JERSEY STATE TROOPER I.J. BOLAND, JOHN DOES 1-10, Defendants.

JOSEPH M. CHIARELLO, JACOB & CHIARELLO, MILLVILLE, NJ, On behalf of plaintiffs.

LINDA A. GALELLA, RICHARDSON, GALELLA & AUSTERMUHL, SUITE B, WOODBURY, NJ, On behalf of Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office and Detective Francine Webb.

ROSHAN DEVEN SHAH, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, TRENTON, NJ, On behalf of New Jersey State Police and New Jersey State Trooper I.J. Boland.

OPINION

NOEL L. HILLMAN, District Judge.

This case involves allegations that a search warrant was executed at the wrong address. Presently before the Court are the motions of defendants to dismiss plaintiffs' claims against them. For the reasons expressed below, defendants' motions will be granted.

BACKGROUND

According to their amended complaint, on April 19, 2012, plaintiffs, John and Mary Greer, were residing at 726 Whitaker Avenue in Millville, New Jersey. Plaintiffs claim that defendants, the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office (CCPO), CCPO Detective Francine Webb, the New Jersey State Police, and New Jersey State Police Trooper I.J. Boland, executed a search warrant on their home, instead of 762 Whitaker Avenue. As a result of the improper search, plaintiffs claim that their property was destroyed, they were subject to wrongful arrest, and they suffered physical and emotional injuries as a result of defendants' excessive force and negligence.

Plaintiff filed the instant suit against defendants for negligence and "excessive force in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983."[1] Defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs have opposed their motions.

DISCUSSION

A. Subject matter jurisdiction

Defendants removed plaintiffs' case to this Court, which has jurisdiction over plaintiffs' federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiffs' state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

B. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005). It is well settled that a pleading is sufficient if it contains "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Under the liberal federal pleading rules, it is not necessary to plead evidence, and it is not necessary to plead all the facts that serve as a basis for the claim. Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 562 F.2d 434, 446 (3d Cir. 1977). However, "[a]lthough the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set forth an intricately detailed description of the asserted basis for relief, they do require that the pleadings give defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Baldwin Cnty. Welcome Ctr. v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 149-50 n.3 (1984) (quotation and citation omitted).

A district court, in weighing a motion to dismiss, asks "not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claim.'" Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 563 n.8 (2007) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhoades, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 684 (2009) ("Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for all civil actions'...."); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) ("Iqbal... provides the final nail-in-the-coffin for the no set of facts' standard that applied to federal complaints before Twombly."). Following the Twombly/Iqbal standard, the Third Circuit has instructed a two-part analysis in reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; a district court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210 (citing Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950). Second, a district court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief.'" Id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950). A complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. Id.; see also Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (stating that the "Supreme Court's Twombly formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus: stating... a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest' the required element. This does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, ' but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary element").

A court need not credit either "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" in a complaint when deciding a motion to dismiss. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997). The defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented. Hedges v. U.S., 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

A court in reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must only consider the facts alleged in the pleadings, the documents attached thereto as exhibits, and matters of judicial notice. S. Cross Overseas Agencies, Inc. v. Kwong Shipping Grp. Ltd., 181 F.3d 410, 426 (3d Cir. 1999). A court may consider, however, "an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the document." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). If any other matters outside the pleadings are presented to the court, and the court does not exclude those matters, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion will be treated as a summary judgment motion pursuant to Rule 56. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b).

C. Analysis

Plaintiffs claim that defendants' execution of the search warrant at their home at 726 Whitaker instead of the address on the warrant - 762 Whitaker - was negligent and perpetrated with excessive force, and they suffered economic and non-economic injuries as a result. Plaintiffs' bare-bones complaint contains no more detail about the incident or their damages. Defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' claims on several bases.

(1) Plaintiffs' excessive force claims

Plaintiffs claim that all the defendants used "excessive force" in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As a primary matter, § 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, but instead provides a vehicle for vindicating the violation of other federal rights. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989). Section 1983 provides in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory... 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 the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress....

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Therefore, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and, second, that the alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d Cir. 1994). Plaintiffs allege that defendants used "excessive force, " but they do not specify what "right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States" defendants allegedly violated. The Court will construe their "excessive force" claim to allege a violation of the Fourth Amendment. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989) (explaining that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of excessive force during the course of an arrest).

To the extent Plaintiffs plead Fourth Amendment violations by defendants, their claims do not survive, for several reasons. First, plaintiffs cannot maintain § 1983 claims against the New Jersey State Police or the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office because they are not "persons" who can act under the color of law. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) (explaining that a state or an arm of the state is not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983); Smith v. New Jersey, 908 F.Supp.2d 560, 563 (D.N.J. 2012) (dismissing a § 1983 claim against the State of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Police because the state and arms of the state may not be sued under § 1983); Wright v. State, 778 A.2d 443, 462 (N.J. 2001) ("The legislative delegation, in combination with the Attorney General's supervisory authority and power to supersede, demonstrates that at its essence the county prosecutors' law enforcement function is clearly a State function."); Briggs v. Moore, 251 F.Appx. 77, 79 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Reitz v. County of Bucks, 125 F.3d 139, 148 (3d Cir. 1997)) (finding that a county prosecutor's office is not a separate entity that can be sued under § 1983).

Second, with regard to plaintiffs' excessive force claims against CCPO Detective Webb and New Jersey State Trooper Boland, those claims must be dismissed for insufficient pleading. "A[n individual government] defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongdoing.... Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005). In their amended complaint, other than generally stating that Webb and Boland searched the wrong house and used excessive force, plaintiffs do not ascribe any specific wrongdoing to Webb or Boland.[2] The fundamental "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" required by Rule 8(a)(2) is completely lacking, and everyone is left to guess as to Webb's and Boland's role in the execution of the search warrant at plaintiffs' home. In contrast to what Twombly and Iqbal instruct, plaintiffs' deficient pleading does not provide enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence to support their excessive force claims.

Thus, all of plaintiffs' claims brought pursuant to § 1983 for excessive force must be dismissed as to all defendants.

(2) Plaintiffs' negligence claims

Plaintiffs claim that the CCPO, the New Jersey State Police, Webb, and Boland acted negligently when they executed the search warrant at the wrong address. These claims fail for essentially the same reasons as plaintiffs' excessive force claims.

As a primary matter, plaintiffs have not provided any indication that the State, including the CCPO, New Jersey State Police, and Webb in her official capacity, have waived their sovereign immunity to suit for plaintiffs' negligence claims.[3] See Royster v. New Jersey State Police, 110 A.3d 934, 941 (N.J.Super. Ct. A.D. 2015) (quoting Allen v. Fauver, 167 N.J. 69, 73-74, 768 A.2d 1055 (2001)) (explaining that (1) New Jersey courts "have long recognized that an essential and fundamental aspect of sovereignty is freedom from suit by private citizens for money judgments absent the State's consent"; and (2) under New Jersey precedent, legislative consent to suit is "integral to [the] waiver of sovereign immunity." (citing the Legislature's enactment of the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3)).

Next, with regard to the claims of negligence against Webb and Boland, aside from any state law-based immunities, [4] plaintiffs' complaint is as devoid of facts to support their negligence claims as it is for their excessive force claims. The complaint is silent as to how Webb or Boland acted negligently with regard to the execution of the search warrant.[5] Simply pleading that they were negligent is the type of "bald assertion" or "legal conclusion" that is not sufficient to maintain a cause of action. Consequently, plaintiffs' negligence claims against all defendants must be dismissed.[6]

CONCLUSION

For the reasons expressed above, all claims in plaintiffs' complaint shall be dismissed. An appropriate Order will be entered.


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