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Alvarez v. City of Atlantic City

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 24, 2017

NORMA ALVAREZ and TIFFANY BAEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY and OFFICER JOSE GONZALEZ, Defendants.

          DAVID R. CASTELLANI CASTELLANI LAW FIRM, LLC, On behalf of Plaintiffs.

          MORRISON KENT FAIRBAIRN, MICHAEL A. ARMSTRONG & ASSOCIATES, LLC, On behalf of Defendant City of Atlantic City.

          TRACY L. RILEY, RACHEL M. CONTE LAW OFFICES OF RILEY & RILEY, On behalf of Defendant Officer Jose Gonzalez.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case involves claims of excessive force by an Atlantic City police officer at an Atlantic City casino nightclub, and claims of municipal liability against the City of Atlantic City for having a policy and custom of condoning the use of excessive force. Presently before the Court is the motion of the individual police officer defendant for summary judgment in his favor. For the reasons expressed below, Defendant's motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         In the early morning hours of March 23, 2013, Plaintiff Tiffany Baez and a group of female friends, including former plaintiff Norma Alvarez who has now settled her claims with the defendants, went to the Providence nightclub in the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. An incident took place in the women's restroom between one of the members of Baez's group and the ladies' room attendant.[1] As a result of that incident, a Providence security guard and defendant Officer Jose Gonzalez, an Atlantic City police officer who was working a special detail at the nightclub, told the entire group to leave the club. The women left the club through the valet area without incident, and Baez asked Gonzalez how they could reenter the casino. A few minutes later, Baez and the rest of the group returned to the Providence nightclub.

         Those are the only relevant facts that the parties agree on with regard to what occurred at the nightclub. Baez claims that her acquaintance, a Providence security guard named Nestor stationed at the entrance, allowed Baez and the group to reenter the club. Baez claims that even though the group was talking peacefully between themselves, and she had only consumed one or two alcoholic drinks the entire night, within minutes Gonzalez approached them to again escort them from the club. Because the music was so loud, Baez leaned into Gonzalez to tell him that they were going to leave when suddenly and without provocation Gonzalez pushed her and Alvarez into the crowd of people, causing them to stumble backwards.

         Baez further claims that Gonzalez hit her hand, and then punched her directly in the face, causing her to fall to the ground, where Gonzalez pounced on her with his knee on her back, and continued to punch her numerous times in the face. Baez asserts that Gonzalez ripped her shirt tight to her neck, popping the first button, in effect choking her. Gonzalez then handcuffed Baez while she was on the ground, and directed her to a back room, where Baez claims that Gonzalez stated, “That's right bitch, you just got fucked by a cop.”

         In contrast to Baez's account, Gonzalez claims that the women, including Baez, were visibly intoxicated and “mouthy” from the time they were escorted out of the nightclub and also when they returned. Gonzalez provides the testimony of the security guard Nestor, who states that he did not allow Baez and her friends back into the club. However they got back in, Gonzalez was again asked by Providence security for assistance in escorting the group out of the club. When Gonzalez approached the group and told them to leave, everyone ignored his command. He claims that Baez moved toward him and shouted, “Get the fuck off my girl, ” referring to Alvarez. Gonzalez claims that Baez used the palm of her hand to strike him, which caused his radio mic to fall to the ground. Gonzalez claims that he tried to create space between him and Baez by using a swiping motion. Gonzalez claims that Baez grabbed onto his shirt, at which time he struck her one time, causing her to stumble backwards. Because of Baez's grip on his shirt, Gonzalez stumbled with her onto the ground. Gonzalez struggled with Baez before he was finally able to handcuff her and bring her into a back room for transport to the police station.

         From that point, Baez was taken to the Atlantic City Police Department, locked in a holding cell, and then transported to the Atlantic City Medical Center emergency room to be treated for her injuries. After receiving medical care, Baez went to the Atlantic County jail, where $15, 000 bail was set. Baez was indicted for aggravated assault and resisting arrest. After being initially rejected from the pre-trial intervention program, a judge ordered that Baez be permitted to enter the PTI program. Baez brought criminal charges against Gonzalez for assault. The matter was tried before a municipal court judge, who granted Gonzalez's motion to dismiss, finding him not guilty of assault.

         Based on these events, Baez brought suit against Gonzalez and the City of Atlantic for various constitutional and state law violations. By way of stipulation, the remaining claims in the case are for violation of Baez's Fourth Amendment rights due to Gonzalez's alleged use of excessive force and Atlantic City's policies and customs which plaintiff contends condone its officers' use of excessive force.[2]

         Gonzalez has moved for summary judgment in his favor, arguing that no reasonable juror could find that his use of force was unreasonable under the circumstances, as supported by his and his witnesses' testimony, along with the video surveillance that captured the events in the nightclub. Baez has opposed Gonzalez's motion, arguing that her version of what happened is supported by photographs of her injuries, her testimony, ...


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