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Watts v. Atko

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 29, 2017



          HON. JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on motion of Defendants Detectives Atem K. Ako (“Ako”) and Christine A. Sullivan (“Sullivan”) to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The Court has considered the written submissions of the parties and the arguments advanced at the hearing on February 22, 2017. For the reasons stated on the record that day, as well as those that follow, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         Plaintiffs Michael Watts and Jessica Olsen were arrested by the Defendants on February 19, 2014 and charged with money laundering and involuntary servitude. The Defendants are both members of the State of New Jersey Department of Law and Safety, Division of Criminal Justice. In the eight count Complaint, Plaintiffs set forth numerous Constitutional violations related to the arrest and search of the Plaintiffs, which stems from an alleged factually baseless warrant obtained by Ako. Compl. ¶ 16. In general terms, Defendants claim they were given information by two witnesses related to R.W., who is a young adult that resided with the Plaintiffs. These witnesses claim, among other things, that R.W. was being held in the house against her will. Based in part on this information, Ako made an application for a search warrant and the eventual execution of the warrant lead to the Plaintiffs' arrest and detention.

         As plead, the Complaint sets forth facts sufficient to meet notice pleading standard set forth in Fed.R.Civ.P. 8. However, the Complaint includes references and citations to several exhibits, which include the search warrant, transcripts of interviews with the two alleged witnesses, a copy of an interview with R.W., and a copy of the return of the search warrant. These references significantly expand the factual underpinnings of the Complaint and form the basis for most of Defendants' motion to dismiss.

         I. Background

         The Complaint sets forth the following claims. Counts I through IV set forth violations against Plaintiff Watts. Counts I and II allege a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Ako and Sullivan respectively, based on false arrest, malicious prosecution, illegal search and seizure, due process violations, and deprivation of property. Count III alleges similar claims against John Doe #1 police officer. Count IV is styled as “Violation of Plaintiff's First, Fourth, Fourteenth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment Protection Against False Arrest, Malicious Prosecution, and Unlawful Search and Seizure of the Person and Property” as alleged by Watts against Defendants Ako, Sullivan and John Doe #1. Counts V though VIII relate to violations against Olson which mirror those plead as to Plaintiff Watts.

         Defendants move for dismissal on the following grounds. First, all claims against the Defendants in their official capacity should be dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity and because Defendants are not persons amenable to suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Second, Defendants claim that Plaintiffs' repeated claims of negligent behavior fails to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Third, Defendants move to dismiss the claims under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Fourth, Defendants claim that the exhibits referenced in the Complaint undermine Plaintiffs' claims that probable cause was lacking for the search warrant and arrest. Fifth, Defendants claim that even if probable cause was lacking, the law at issue was not clearly established on February 19, 2014. For all of these reasons, Defendants claim that that the Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and should be dismissed.

         In their brief and on the record during oral argument, Plaintiffs state that they are not pursuing claims against the Defendants in their official capacity and stipulate that any reference to claims against the Defendants in their official capacity be stricken from the Complaint. Plaintiffs also agree that to the extent these claims can be inferred in the Complaint, these claims are dismissed with prejudice. In addition, Plaintiffs acknowledge claims exclusive predicated upon negligent conduct fail to state a viable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Here, Plaintiffs' use of the negligence standard is coupled with allegations of purposeful and intentional actions related to the Defendants' conduct in the application for the warrant, execution thereof, and arrest and detention of the Plaintiffs. During the hearing in this matter, Defendants agreed that such pleadings on their face give rise to a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For these reasons, the Court finds that the Complaint as plead in paragraphs 38, 43, 45 are predicated willful and intentional conduct and not merely negligence. Defendants' motion to dismiss on this basis is denied.

         Finally, Plaintiffs agree that despite listing a Fifth Amendment violation in the Complaint, Plaintiffs do not intend to pursue such a claim. As a result, Defendants motion to dismiss on this basis is granted. The remainder of the claims will be addressed in turn

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a party to move for dismissal of a claim based on “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if the alleged facts, taken as true, fail to state a claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), ordinarily only the allegations in the complaint, matters of public record, orders, and exhibits attached to the complaint, are taken into consideration.[1] See Chester County Intermediate Unit v. Pa. Blue Shield, 896 F.2d 808, 812 (3d Cir. 1990). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead evidence. Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561 F.2d 434, 446 (3d Cir. 1977). The question before the Court is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 150 (2007). Instead, the Court simply asks whether the plaintiff has articulated “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

         “A claim has facial plausibility[2] when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         Thus, a motion to dismiss should be granted unless the plaintiff's factual allegations are “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all of the complaint's allegations are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (internal citations omitted). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has ...

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