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Rodriguez v. Edgewater Board of Education

Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen

September 1, 2017

HECTOR & RUTH RODRIGUEZ GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR THEIR DAUGHTER, MADELINE RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
EDGEWATER BOARD OF EDUCATION, EDGEWATER SCHOOL DISTRICT, DR. LORRAINE CELLA, ED.D., PAT DESANTO, LSW, PATRICIA CIVITELLO, JENNIFER BARRY, EDGEWATER POLICE DEPARTMENT, STEVEN TIBUS, JOHN DOES 1-10, JANE DOES 1-10, Defendants.

          Argued: August 31, 2017

          Howard Nirenberg, Esq. from law offices of Nirenberg & Varano, LLP on behalf of the Defendants Edgewater Board of Education, Edgewater School District, Dr. Loraine Cella, ED.D., Pat DeSanto, LSW, Patricia Civitello, and Jennifer Barry.

          Richard S. Mazawey, Esq. from the law offices of Richard S. Mazawey on behalf of the Plaintiffs Mr. Hector and Mrs. Ruth Rodriguez Guardian Ad Litem For Their Daughter, Madeline Rodriguez.

          OPINION

          Honorable Robert C. Wilson, J.S.C.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on a motion for summary judgment filed by Howard Nirenberg, Esq. from law offices of Nirenberg & Varano, LLP on behalf of the Defendants Edgewater Board of Education, Edgewater School District, Dr. Loraine Cella, ED.D., Pat DeSanto, LSW, Patricia Civitello, and Jennifer Barry (hereinafter "Defendants" or "School Defendants"). Opposition was filed by Richard S. Mazawey, Esq. from the law offices of Richard S. Mazawey on behalf of the Plaintiffs, Mr. Hector and Mrs. Ruth Rodriguez Guardian Ad Litem For Their Daughter, Madeline Rodriguez (hereinafter "Plaintiffs"). Oral argument was heard on August 31, 2017.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On December 9, 2013, at around 9:00 a.m., Madeline Rodriguez was called to the principal's office and was told that she needed to be out of class until she spoke with Mr. Hector and Mrs. Ruth Rodriguez. A member of the principal's office at the Edgewater School District called Mrs. Rodriguez and advised her to come down to the school for an alleged incident regarding her daughter. The school officials advised that they intended to hold a meeting with Mrs. Rodriguez, Madeline, and the Edgewater Police Department. Madeline Rodriguez was ten years old at the time. Ms. DeSanto, Ms. Civitello, and Detective Sergeant Tibus did not question Madeline until Mrs. Rodriguez arrived at the school to participate in the proceedings.

         Until Mrs. Rodriguez arrived, Madeline was allegedly kept standing in the hallway outside of the principal's office for a long time within sight of the other students. Once Mrs. Rodriguez arrived, Ms. DeSanto, Patricia Civitello, and Detective Sergeant Steven Tibus began the interview of Madeline, questioning her about an e-mail that she allegedly sent to another student using her "Roblox" account. The e-mail was threatening in nature; it was a form of cyber bullying threatening the life of another student. Madeline denied that she sent the e-mail, referring to the use of poor grammar and spelling mistakes to prove that she could not be the author of said e-mail. In spite of Madeline's assertions, Detective Sergeant Tibus and Ms. DeSanto insisted that they knew that she sent the e-mail and that she should confess to sending it.

         According to Mrs. Rodriguez, Detective Sergeant Tibus and Ms. DeSanto became "more and more aggressive with Madeline and treated Madeline like an adult criminal suspect being accused of a serious crime." Furthermore, Mrs. Rodriguez alleged that Detective Sergeant Tibus, as well as school officials, pressured Madeline to confess by stating that if she admitted fault, "everything was going to be over, " and that if she refused to confess, then further investigation and the imposition of consequences for lying would ensue. Madeline only confessed to writing the message after continued questioning by Ms. DeSanto and Detective Sergeant Tibus first had ended and she was alone with her mother, Mrs. Rodriguez.

         Plaintiff first asserts that the defendants used "threats, intimidation and coercion" to violate Madeline's substantive due process or equal protection rights, privileges and immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or those same rights as secured by the laws or Constitution of New Jersey. Plaintiff points toward the allegedly custodial nature of the interview between Madeline, Detective Sergeant Tibus, Ms. DeSanto, and Ms. Civitello as the basis for this claim. Plaintiff argues that the meeting, held "under the auspices of Defendants Tibus, DeSanto, and Civitello" was an improper inquest which resulted in a false confession. Plaintiffs assert that subsequent text messages from the recipient of the Roblox e-mail demonstrate that the victim "screwed up and she was sorry" further showing that Madeline did not send the Roblox message.

         Additionally, on March 23, 2014 the Plaintiffs traveled as a family to the Roblox corporate headquarters in California in order to investigate the origin of the message. According to Hector Rodriguez, it was determined during this trip that Roblox could not locate the message on its internal servers or link the message to Madeline's account. Plaintiffs argue that this is further indication that the email was not sent by Madeline.

         Finally, Plaintiff contends that defendants failed to appropriately enforce its own Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying Policy. Specifically, plaintiffs contend that defendants improperly failed to consider Madeline's age and disciplinary history when responding to the apparent threat of the email; that the defendants failed to consider the availability of counseling and other intervention methods during the initial meeting and interview; and that the defendants failed to perform necessary due diligence by not first conducting an investigation of the grammar and style of the email before questioning Madeline.

         RULE ...


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