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Widmaier v. City of Newark

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 29, 2017

NANCY F. WIDMAIER AND VINCENT A. WIDMAIER, individually and as administrator ad prosequendum for the estate of MICHAEL WIDMAIER, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF NEWARK, et al, Defendants.

          OPINION

          John Michaei Vazquez, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court by way of the motion to dismiss filed by the City of Newark ("Newark" or the "City"); former Newark Police Chief Eugene Venable; Detective Silas Smith, Jr.; Lieutenant John Rodrigues; Detective Rui Domingues; Sergeant Joseph Frost; and Anthony Campos. D.E. 73. Plaintiff is now deceased. As a result, Nancy F. Widmaier and Vincent A. Widmaier ("Plaintiffs") are now Plaintiffs as administrators ad prosequendum of Michael Widmaier's estate. Plaintiffs oppose the motion. D.E. 76. The Court reviewed the submissions made in support and opposition to the motion and considered the motions without oral argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b) and L. Civ. R, 78.1 (b).[1] For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         The Court previously discussed at length in deciding a prior motion to dismiss. D.E. 54. As a brief overview, Plaintiffs allege that on July 21, 2015, after Michael Widmaier fled from a Jeep on foot, the driver of the Jeep caught up with him, struck him with the Jeep, knocked him to the ground, and drove directly over his leg before coming to a stop. Fifth Am. Compl. ("FAC") ¶¶ 21 -36. The driver opened the door, looked down and saw Widmaier under the car, then put the car in reverse and drove over his torso. Id. ¶¶ 36-39. The driver of the Jeep was later identified as Defendant Newark Police Detective Silas Smith. Id. ¶ 40. Plaintiffs assert Section 1983, New Jersey constitutional, and tort law claims against multiple Newark police officers, the City of Newark, and the Newark Police department because this alleged wrongful conduct.

         On June 14, 2017, this Court dismissed every Defendant in this matter except for Defendant Silas Smith, Jr. for failure to state a claim. D.E. 54, 55. The claims against the Newark Police Department were dismissed with prejudice. Widmaier, however, was provided with an opportunity to file an amended pleading to reassert claims against the other Defendants. Id. On September 25, 2017, Nancy F. Widmaier and Vincent A. Widmaier filed a Fourth Amended Complaint as administrator ad prosequendum for the estate of Michael Widmaier because Widmaier passed away. D.E. 61. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and Plaintiffs filed a cross-motion for leave to file a Fifth Amended Complaint. On May 17, 2018, Plaintiffs' cross-motion was granted and Defendants' motion to dismiss was denied without prejudice. D.E. 67. As a result, Plaintiffs filed the FAC.

         As will be discussed in detail below, the FAC includes a number of new factual allegations regarding the July 21 incident as to Plaintiffs' claims against the City and supervisors within the Newark Police Department. D.E. 72. Defendants subsequently filed the instant motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) seeking to dismiss the FAC in its entirety except as to the claims asserted against Defendant Smith.[2] D.E. 73.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         For a complaint to survive dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), it must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Further, a plaintiff must "allege sufficient facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will uncover proof of her claims." Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 789 (3d Cir. 2016). In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, district courts must separate the factual and legal elements. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-211 (3d Cir. 2009). Restatements of the elements of a claim are legal conclusions, and therefore, not entitled to a presumption of truth. Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 224 (3d Cir. 2011). The Court, however, "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true." Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210.

         Much of Plaintiffs' opposition to this motion is premised on a belief that discovery will uncover proof of their claims. See, e.g., Plfs. Opp. at 29-30. In so doing, Plaintiffs appear to be arguing that this Court should apply the notice pleading standard as derived from Conley v. Gibson. 355 U.S. 41 (1957). Since Twombly and Iqbal, however, the notice pleading standard is no longer in effect in federal court. Rather, claims must be supported by sufficient factual allegations from the outset. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, IqbaL 556 U.S. at 678. Thus, the Court rejects Plaintiffs' argument that certain claims should survive this motion to dismiss solely based on the assumption that discovery will reveal the necessary factual support.

         III. ANALYSIS

         1. CLAIMS AGAINST THE CITY[3] AND THE SUPERVISORY DEFENDANTS

         a. Monell Claim (Count III)

         Defendants argue that Count 111, a Monell liability claim, [4] must be dismissed because Plaintiffs fail to identify a municipal policy or custom that led to Widmaier's injuries. Defs. Br. at 21/25. A municipality cannot be liable under Section 1983 for the acts of its employees on the basis of respondent superior. Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217. 222 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing Monell v. Dep't oj'Soc. Sen's. of N.Y.C, 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978)). Rather, to hold a municipality liable, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the violation of rights was caused by a municipal policy or custom. Id. In addition, the Third Circuit recently clarified that a Monell claim may also be premised on a municipality's failure to train. For a failure to train claim, a plaintiff "must demonstrate that a city's failure to train its employees 'reflects a deliberate or conscious choice.'" Estate of Roman v. City of Newark, 914 F.3d 789, 798 (3d Cir. 2019). For claims involving police officers, a failure to train can only serve as a basis for Section 1983 liability where the failure "amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact." Id. (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989)). Deliberate indifference is plausibly pled by showing that "(1) municipal policy makers know that employees will confront a particular situation, (2) the situation involves a difficult choice or a history of employees mishandling, and (3) the wrong choice by an employee will frequently cause deprivation of constitutional rights." Id., (quoting Doe v. Luzeme County, 660 F.3d 169, 180 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal brackets omitted)).

         In Roman, the plaintiffs Monell claim alleged that Newark was liable, with respect to police searches, because it failed to train police officers and engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations. Id., at 797. The plaintiffs claims were based in part on a consent decree between the Department of Justice and the City of Newark that pertained to police misconduct. Id. at 799. The Third Circuit determined that the plaintiff adequately pled failure to train and unconstitutional custom Monell claims. The court determined that the plaintiffs allegations as to an improper search of his apartment, coupled with the consent decree, which addressed similar police misconduct, provided sufficient factual support to survive a motion to dismiss. Id. at 799-801. Although the consent decree was not in place when the events giving rise to Roman's claims occurred, the court determined that it "may fairly infer that the problems that led to [the consent decree] were occurring during die time of [Roman's] allegations and for some time before that." Id. at 799. Consequently, the Third Circuit determined that the consent decree "fortifie[d]" the plaintiffs Monell claims "because It acknowledges a pattern or practice of conduct by the Newark Police Department that deprives individuals of rights, privileges, and immunities secured by the Constitution." Id. (internal quotation omitted). Finally, the Third Circuit determined that these violations were widespread and causally linked to the plaintiffs allegations because the Police Department was aware of complaints but rarely acted upon them. Id.

         Plaintiffs' Monell allegation resembles the claim in Roman. Plaintiffs' claim is premised on Newark's custom of failing to adequately train its police officers as to the use of force and pedestrian stops. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Newark failed to adopt policies and training programs to ensure that the Newark Police Department and its officers complied with state and federal law as well as the Constitutional rights of individuals in custody or being pursued by Newark police officers. FAC ¶ 113. Further, Plaintiffs allege that Newark failed to train its police officers as to the use of excessive force, or to take actions to prevent injury and death due to the use of excessive force. Id. ¶ 115. While not as clear. Plaintiffs also appear to allege that there was a custom within the Newark Police Department of unconstitutional and discriminatory behavior surrounding arrests and the use of force. Id. ¶ 147.

         Like Roman, Plaintiffs' Monell claim relies heavily on a July 22, 2014 Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division Investigative Report of the Newark Police Department (the "DOJ Report") and the resulting Consent Decree. To that end, the FAC asserts new factual allegations regarding the DOJ Report. See FAC ¶ 117. Defendants respond that Plaintiffs cannot rely on the DOJ Report. Defendants maintain that because Newark entered into a consent decree to correct the deficiencies outlined in the DOJ Report, the Report is settlement material. Defs. Br. at 25.

         Defendants provide no legal support for this argument, and the Court is not aware of any reason why it cannot consider Plaintiffs' factual allegations that address the DOJ Report. Cf. Roman, 914 F.3d at 796 (stating that court could consider undisputedly authentic settlement material that plaintiffs claims were based upon). Accordingly, the Court will consider Plaintiffs' allegations that pertain to the DOJ Report.

         Pertinent to Plaintiffs' claims, the DOJ Report found reasonable cause to believe that approximately 75% of reported pedestrian stops by the Newark Police Department violated the Fourth Amendment, and that unjustified and excessive force occurred in more than 20% of the incidents reviewed. FAC ¶¶ 119, 122. Moreover, during the review period, Newark police officers "made thousands of stops of individuals described as milling, loitering, or wandering, without any indication of reasonable criminal activity." Id. ¶ 120. Plaintiffs allege that the DOJ report "concluded that at least part of the pattern of unlawful stops could be traced to Police Department training and policies." Id. ¶ 129. In addition, Newark Police Officers are required to complete a "Field Inquiry Report," which among other things, documents the legal support for the stop. But the DOJ Report found that the Police Department's use of such reports was not consistent with its policy. Id. ¶¶ 124-26.

         The DOJ Report also found reasonable cause to believe that the Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force. The DOJ Report stated that the Police Department failed to refer serious use of force cases to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office for review, that it did not hold police officers accountable for failing to document the use of force, and that this inadequate supervision contributed to the pattern of Constitutional violations. Id. ¶¶ 132-36. Finally, Plaintiffs contend that the City, Campos, Domingues, Frost and Venable knew of and helped to continue the customs and practices documented in the DOJ Report, and that these policies proximately caused Widmaier's injuries. Id. ¶¶ 149-64.

         The FAC adequately asserts a Moncll claim. As discussed in die prior Opinion, Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that Smith attempted to stop Widmaier without any indication that criminal activity was occurring, and that Smith used unlawful and unreasonable force on Widmaier after Widmaier had already been knocked to the ground by Smith's Jeep. In addition, Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants failed to correctly document the incident and failed to take proper disciplinary action with respect to Smith. Opinion at 9-15. The FAC asserts additional allegations that neither a use of force or field inquiry report were completed after the incident, and that there was no internal investigation. FAC ¶¶ 150-55. Like Roman, the wrongdoing doing set forth in the DOJ Report covers the same type of wrongful conduct that Plaintiffs allege occurred here. Thus, the Court can infer that the alleged Constitutional violations surrounding Widmaier's arrest had been occurring within the Newark Police Department for some time, were ...


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