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Cresci v. Aquino

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 10, 2017

PETER J. CRESCI, et al., Plaintiffs,
JOARRIE AQUINO, Individually, MICHAEL A. SIGNORILE, JR., Individually, COUNTY OF HUDSON; and John Does 1-4, Defendants.


          KEVIN MCNULTY United States District Judge.

         Under the New Jersey Rules of Court, a "complaint-warrant" may be issued if there is probable cause to believe a person has committed or is committing a serious offense. For other, relatively less serious offenses, a "summons-complaint" is issued. A complaint-warrant may furnish the basis for an arrest; a summons-complaint is a notice to appear. In June 2013, a New Jersey municipal court judge found probable cause to believe that the plaintiff here, Peter Cresci, committed two third degree offenses-crimes that would ordinarily call for a summons-complaint. But the judge issued a warrant-complaint instead, so he was arrested. That procedural irregularity, Cresci claims, violated his constitutional rights.

         Cresci brings this action against the arresting officers, Detectives Joarrie Aquino and Michael Signorile, Jr., as well as the County of Hudson (the "County"), alleging violations of his First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He also asserts a potpourri of state law torts, including battery, assault, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and unlawful interference with prospective economic advantage. Defendants move to dismiss the complaint on grounds of sovereign and qualified immunity. In the alternative, they move to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. For the reasons stated herein, the motions will be GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Cresci is an attorney.[1] He suggests that the County is hostile to him, because he has sued the County on several occasions. He also represented County employees during a successful unionization drive, and has "cooperated in several investigations regarding County of Hudson administrators, including the Hudson County Sheriffs Hatch Act violations." (Compl. ¶ 43).

         "[B]ased on the review of financial records 8b court documents, and a sworn statement of the victim, " on June 10, 2013, Signorile swore under oath that there was probable cause to believe Cresci had committed third degree theft and forgery.[2] A municipal judge agreed, and issued a warrant-complaint. Cresci was arrested later that day. At the time, Cresci was conducting a medical malpractice trial in New Jersey state court. Signorile handcuffed Cresci from behind, allegedly injuring him in some manner. Signorile and Aquino then "Perp Walked" Cresci though the courthouse and outside. (ECF No. 41-6; Compl. ¶¶ 8-9, 25-26)

         Cresci was taken by Signorile and Aquino to the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office ("HCPO"). There, Aquino inventoried Cresci's personal effects. At his initial appearance, the municipal judge declined to release him on his own recognizance, and set bail. Cresci was remanded to custody. Although he invoked his right to counsel, he was not allowed to meet with a lawyer. He was not provided with food or drink for the first 10 hours of imprisonment. He did not receive medical attention for the unspecified injury he suffered incident to arrest. Before posting bail and being released, he spent about 25 hours in jail. (Compl. ¶¶ 9-12, 16)

         On July 25, 2013, a New Jersey grand jury returned a true bill against Cresci for the crimes of third degree theft and forgery. (ECF No. 41-7)[3]

         On August 5, 2013, Cresci filed this complaint. It primarily asserts five lettered causes of action:

A. False arrest: violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
B. Excessive force: violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
C. False imprisonment: violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
D. Abuse of process; and
E. First Amendment Retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         District Judge Faith S. Hochberg administratively terminated the case on April 7, 2014, pending resolution of the underlying criminal proceedings. Two years later, on June 2, 2016, Cresci represented that the "underlying [criminal] action has been resolved."[4] Judge Hochberg having retired in the interim, this civil case was reassigned to me, and I reopened it. (ECF Nos. 1, 30, 34, 35, 37)

         On August 31, 2016, Aquino and Signorile filed a renewed motion to dismiss. On October 4, 2016, Hudson County filed a "cross-motion" to dismiss, essentially adopting the arguments and reasoning of Aquino and Signorile's motion. (ECF Nos. 41, 47)


         A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) may be raised at any time. Iwanowa v. Ford Motor Co., 67 F.Supp.2d 424, 437-38 (D.N.J. 1999). Rule 12(b)(1) challenges may be either facial or factual attacks. See 2 Moore's Federal Practice § 12.30[4] (3d ed. 2007). The defendant may facially challenge subject matter jurisdiction by arguing that the complaint, on its face, does not allege sufficient grounds to establish subject matter jurisdiction. "In reviewing a facial attack, the court must only consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Lincoln Ben. Life Co. v. AEI Life, LLC, 800 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000)).

         In addition, and in the alternative, the motions seek dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Animal Science Products, Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 469 n. 9 (3d Cir. 2011). For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. New Jersey Carpenters & the Trustees Thereof v. Tishman Const. Corp. of New Jersey, 760 F.3d 297, 302 (3d Cir. 2014).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a speculative level, such that it is "plausible on its face." See Id. at 570; see also West Run Student Housing Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat. Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013). That facial-plausibility standard is met "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). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement'... it asks for more than a sheer possibility." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.


         A. The County's "Cross-Motion"

         First, some brush-clearing. Cresci takes issue with the County's "cross-motion" to dismiss, and asks me to "bar" it. The argument seems to be that the County has waived its right to assert defenses under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6) because it has filed an answer. But lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). And a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted may be made as motion for judgment on the pleadings at any time, so long as trial is not delayed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), 12(h)(2). The County's motion was made well in advance of trial. There is no risk of delay.

         Nor is there any procedural disadvantage to Cresci. The County's motion is not really a "cross-motion" at all, but merely a joining-in and adoption of the arguments presented in the individual defendants' motion to dismiss. Cresci has been afforded, and has taken, the opportunity to respond to both motions.[5] (ECF Nos. 44, 50). I therefore deny Cresci's request to strike or bar the County's motion.

         B. Sovereign Immunity/Section 1983 "Persons"

         1. Eleventh Amendment

         Defendants move to dismiss the complaint on jurisdictional grounds, claiming that they partake of the State's Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the states immunity from certain claims: "The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." U.S. Const. Amend. XI. Despite the limited scope of its wording, the Eleventh Amendment has long been held to incorporate a more general principle of sovereign immunity that bars citizens from bringing suit against any state in federal court. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984). The Eleventh Amendment, as a bar to suit, is of jurisdictional stature. Id. at 98 (citing Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1980)).

         Cresci's federal-law claims are brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Although Congress may in some circumstances override a state's sovereign immunity, it did not do so when it enacted section 1983. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 342 (1979). Monetary claims for deprivations of civil rights under section 1983 are therefore subject to the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity bar. Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 58 (1989). That bar applies to state common law causes of action as well. See College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 131 F.3d 353, 355 n.l (3d Cir. 1997), affd, 527 U.S. 666 (noting that a claim of common law unfair competition "obviously could not be asserted successfully [against instrumentality of the state] in light of the Eleventh Amendment"); Doe v. Div. of Youth & Family Servs., 148 F.Supp.2d 462, 492 (D.N.J. 2001) (claim of common law negligence was barred by the Eleventh Amendment).

         Aquino and Signorile, however, are not themselves the State. They are not sued in their official capacities as County (let alone State) employees, but rather in their individual capacities. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 27 (1991) ("[O]fficers sued in their personal capacity come to court as individuals."); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 238 (1977) ("[D]amages against individual defendants are a permissible remedy in some circumstances notwithstanding the fact that they hold public office.").

         Nor is the County identical to the State. See Lake Country Estates, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 440 U.S. 391, 401 (1979) ("[T]he Court has consistently refused to construe the [Eleventh] Amendment to afford protection to political subdivisions such as counties and municipalities even though such entities exercise a 'slice of state power."); accord Mt. Healthy City School Dist. Bd. Educ. v. ...

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