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T.F.R. v. Morris County Prosecutor's Office

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 3, 2017

T.F.R., a minor, Melissa L Rodriguez Mandry, individually and as representative of Minor T.F.R., Jose W. Rodriguez Mandry, individually and as representative of Minor T.F.R., Plaintiffs,
v.
Morris County Prosecutor's Office et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiffs Melissa L. Rodriguez and Jose W. Rodriguez bring this § 1983 action individually and as representatives for Plaintiff T.F.R, a minor. The amended complaint alleges fifteen federal and state claims against Defendants Morris County Prosecutor's Office (“MCPO”), Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, Assistant Prosecutor Samantha DeNegri, Investigator Keisha Higgs (the “MCPO Defendants”), Detective Jack Niemynski, the Township of Roxbury, and Thanh Nguyef. The Township of Roxbury and Detective Niemynski move under 12(b)(6) to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons below, the motion to dismiss is GRANTED. Further, claims against the MCPO Defendants are barred by the Court's previous Order dismissing claims against them with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are drawn from the Plaintiffs' amended complaint. ECF No. 40. On November 14, 2015, an individual wielding a handgun entered the Serenity Smoke Shop in Roxbury Township, Morris County, New Jersey, and left with a $1, 200 bong and $60 lighter. Compl. ¶ 13. Surveillance video from inside the smoke shop depicted an individual “wearing a dark grey hooded sweatshirt, black bandana over the face, gloves (possibly latex), black jeans, and black shoes with white trim and off-white soles.” Id. at ¶ 34. Based on the tape, the detective estimated the individual's height was roughly 5'8” or 5'9, ” although the shop's cashier estimated between 5'11” and 6'2.” Id. at ¶ 37. Thanh Nguyef, the owner of an adjacent store, saw the perpetrator leave the shop and identified him as Plaintiff T.F.R, a local minor whom Nguyef “was known to dislike.” Id. at ¶¶ 19-22.

         On November 17, 2015, the MCPO advised Detective Niemynski that evidence was sufficient to apply for a search warrant for T.F.R.'s home. A warrant was issued by Judge Michael E. Huebner, J.S.C., and executed on November 19, 2015. Id. at ¶¶ 43-45. The search turned up several air pistols, black shoes with white trim/soles, a grey hooded sweatshirt, latex gloves in off-white/yellow, and T.F.R.'s cell phone. Id. at ¶ 46. The same day, Detective Niemynski observed T.F.R at his school wearing black jeans and “white sneakers with off-white soles and white trim.” Id. at ¶ 47.

         Plaintiff surrendered at the advice of Roxbury police on November 20, 2015, and was charged on the same day with robbery and three related offenses. Id. at ¶¶ 48-49. He was detained at the Morris County Juvenile Detention Center for several weeks. ¶ 51. In the meantime, several relatives provided alibis for T.F.R. on the day of the crime and told police that another individual had confessed to other third parties to stealing the bong. Id. at ¶¶ 63-66. Detective Niemynski was unable to corroborate these claims. Id. at ¶ 68. Following a December 14, 2015, probable cause hearing, T.F.R. was placed on house arrest. Id. at ¶¶ 51-54. An Order dated March 1, 2016, permitted T.F.R. to return to school. On May 12, 2016, the charges against T.F.R. were dropped. Id. at ¶ 62.

         The Instant Action

         The original complaint was filed on September 6, 2016, primarily alleging unlawful seizure and prolonged detention against MCPO, the Township of Roxbury, Frederic Knapp, Samantha Denegri, Keisha Higgs and Jack Niemynski. On January 24, 2017, the Court dismissed with prejudice all claims against MCPO, Knapp, DeNegri, and Higgs, on the basis of absolute and qualified immunity. See ECF No. 31. Plaintiffs amended their complaint on May 4, 2016. ECF No. 40. The fifteen-count amended complaint asserts procedural and substantive due process claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Constitution (Counts Two, Three, Five, and Six), unlawful seizure and prolonged detention in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution (Counts One and Four), conspiracy under § 1983 and N.J.S.A. 10:6-2 (Counts Seven and Eight), malicious prosecution (Count Twelve), a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment (Count Fourteen), and a Monell claim against the Township of Roxbury under § 1983 and N.J.S.A. 10:6-2 (Count Fifteen). The other Counts-Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Thirteen-are not relevant to this motion. The Township and Detective Niemynski have moved to dismiss the amended complaint.[1] Discovery has been stayed pending the disposition of this motion.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff 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. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must take all allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998) (citing Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975)). At the same time, courts “are not compelled to accept unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Wheeler v. Wheeler, 639 Fed.Appx. 147, 149 (3d Cir. 2016)(citations omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the Plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the Defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged . . . Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a Defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between the possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663-64 (2009).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Detective Niemynski moves to dismiss the amended complaint on the basis of qualified immunity as well as Plaintiffs' failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The Township of Roxbury moves to dismiss based on Plaintiffs' failure to provide facts showing that a specific “policy or custom” caused Plaintiffs' alleged injuries. Defendants also argue that T.F.R.'s parents lack standing because they have not sustained injuries personal to them.

         A. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity shields government officials who perform discretionary functions from liability for civil damages, “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald,457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009)(courts may choose to first ask whether a violation occurred or instead proceed directly to the question of whether the right in question was “clearly established”). As explained below, Plaintiffs fail to plead specific facts plausibly showing that a violation of T.F.R.'s Fourth Amendment or due process rights occurred. Detective Niemynski is accordingly shielded from liability by qualified immunity. See Roth v. City of Hermitage, 2017 WL 3971397, at *3 (3d Cir. Sept. 8, 2017) (“Failing to consider the ...


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