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Castoran v. Pollak

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 25, 2017

SGT. SCOTT M. POLLAK, et al., Defendants.

          F. Paula Castoran, Pro Se Plaintiff

          Robert Merenich, Esq. Gemmel, Todd & Merenich, P.A. Attorney for Defendants Sgt. Scott Pollak, Chief Robert James, Northfield Police Department and the City of Northfield, NJ.

          Anne B. Taylor, Esq. Assistant United States Attorney Attorney for Defendants Kelly Hutchinson and the United States Postal Service




         This is an action by Plaintiff F. Paula Castoran seeking to hold various federal and municipal defendants liable for a variety of constitutional and common law tort claims[1] arising out of a series of police encounters that Plaintiff experienced in the City of Northfield, N.J. on September 21, 2012.

         Presently before the Court are two distinct motions for summary judgment, one submitted by “Federal Defendants” Postmaster Kelly Hutchinson and the United States Postal Service, and the other submitted by “Municipal Defendants” Sgt. Scott Pollak, Chief Robert James, Northfield Police Department and the City of Northfield.

         The principal issues to be addressed include (1) whether Plaintiff's § 1983 claims challenging her arrest and prosecution are barred by her underlying conviction; (2) whether Federal Defendants have waived Sovereign Immunity; (2) whether Plaintiff has exhausted the prerequisite administrative remedies in order to hold Defendant United States Postal Service liable under the Federal Tort Claims Act; (3) whether Defendant Northfield Police Department can be sued separate from Defendant City of Northfield; (4) whether Defendant Chief Robert James can be held liable under the theory of respondeat superior; (5) whether the summary judgment record contains sufficient facts that would allow a reasonable fact finder to find that Defendant City of Northfield had a custom or policy of discrimination that contributed to the deprivation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights; (6) whether the summary judgment record contains sufficient facts that would allow a reasonable fact finder to find that Plaintiff's injury was a highly predictable consequence of Defendant City of Northfield's failure to train; (7) whether Plaintiff filed a timely Notice of Tort Claim in accordance to the provisions of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act; (8) whether Defendant Pollak is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims.

         For the reasons set forth below, both, Federal Defendants' and Municipal Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be granted.


         A. Factual Background[2]

         On September 21, 2012, at approximately 11:00 AM, Defendant Kelly Hutchinson, acting postmaster of the Northfield Post Office, went outside the post office to investigate reports and complaints of a person laying down on the ground outside of the post office. [Docket Item 62-1 at ¶ 9.] After observing Plaintiff, outside, Defendant Hutchinson called the Northfield police to request that they send officers over to ask Plaintiff to leave. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Shortly thereafter, officers arrived, spoke to Plaintiff and advised Defendant Hutchinson that Plaintiff was going to leave the premises. (Id. at ¶ 11.) After the officers indicated that Plaintiff was going to leave, Plaintiff entered the post office and requested to speak to a supervisor. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Concerned about Plaintiff's behavior, Defendant Hutchinson went outside to request additional assistance from the officers who had not yet left the property. (Id. at ¶ 13.) The officers went back inside the post office and asked Plaintiff to leave, yet Plaintiff refused. (Id. at ¶ 16.) Plaintiff believed that she had a right to take a nap on the premises of the Northfield Post Office because it was “Federal property [that] [was] open to the public.” [Docket Item 66 at 2.] According to the police report prepared by Sgt. Pollak (Defendant Pollak), when he went back inside the post office, he observed Plaintiff yelling at Defendant Hutchinson. [Docket Item 63-3] However, Plaintiff denies this. [Docket Item 69 at ¶ 19.] Defendant Pollak's police report also indicates that he observed that “there were customers waiting to do business with the post office, and [Plaintiff] was interfering with the business.” [Docket Item 63-3 at 17.] Plaintiff was told that she would be arrested if she did not leave. Because she did not leave, the officers arrested Plaintiff. [Docket Item 62-1 at ¶ 22.] Plaintiff was transported to the Northfield Police Department where she was processed, charged with Defiant Trespass and Disorderly Conduct and released on the same day. [Docket Item 63-1 at ¶ 6-7.]

         Not too long after Plaintiff was released, the Northfield Police received a call/complaint regarding a claim that Plaintiff was hitchhiking on Shore Road in Northfield, NJ. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Defendant Pollak sent Officer Geiger to move Plaintiff along. (Id.) Later that day, at approximately 2:17 PM, dispatch received a call regarding a person sleeping along the Northfield bike path. (Id. at ¶ 13.) Evidently, this person was thought to be ill or dead. (Id.) Defendant Pollak responded to this call and went to the scene to find Plaintiff sleeping along the bike path. (Id. at ¶ 18.) Defendant Pollak did not want Plaintiff to remain on the bike path. (Id. at ¶ 20.) After a discussion with Plaintiff, Defendant Pollak offered Plaintiff a ride. Once at the Pleasantville Bus Terminal, Plaintiff refused to exit Pollak's patrol car. (Id. at 28). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Pollak said that he would rip her from the car, but Plaintiff was never physically removed from the vehicle. According to the Detail for Call Service, the entire incident, from the time of Pollak's response to the call at 2:20 PM, to clearing the call at the Pleasantville Bus Terminal at 2:33 PM, lasted only thirteen minutes. (Id. at 31.) Plaintiff filed criminal charges against Defendant Pollak related to this event, and those charges were dismissed for lack of probable cause. (Id. at 32.)

         At the subsequent trial of Plaintiff on the Disorderly Conduct and Defiant Trespass charges in Northfield Municipal Court, Judge Louis J. Belasco heard three days of testimony about the events at the Northfield Post Office on September 21, 2012, on May 27, 2015, June 24, 2015 and August 7, 2015. [Docket Item 62-1 at ¶ 6.) Judge Belasco found the testimony of the officers to be more credible and believable than Plaintiff's testimony. (Id. at ¶ 29.) The Judge found that the first contact between Plaintiff and the police happened outside of the post office when police arrived in response to a call from Postmaster Hutchinson and that Plaintiff got upset because she believed she had a right to rest on postal property because she paid taxes. (Id. at ¶ 30.) The Judge further found that the officers determined Plaintiff should be removed from the premises, to which she responded that she wanted to buy a stamp. (Id. at ¶ 31.) The Judge found that the officers permitted Plaintiff to go inside and that they then entered the building, and observed Plaintiff speaking with a raised voice, demanding to speak to a supervisor. (Id. at ¶ 32.) Moreover, the Judge found that Plaintiff was instructed to leave several times and disregarded those instructions, up to and including the final warning that she would be arrested unless she vacated the building. (Id. at ¶ 34.) The Judge concluded that “while Plaintiff may have been obstreperous, she did not engage in disorderly conduct.” (Id. at ¶ 35.) The Judge also concluded that Plaintiff had been given a limited privilege to enter the post office and buy a stamp, which she did not do. Consequently, the Judge found her guilty of Defiant Trespass. (Id.)

         On April 27, 2016, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Atlantic County, upheld Plaintiff's conviction of defiant trespass. [Docket Item 62-8.] Currently, Plaintiff's appeal from the Superior Court disposition is pending before the Appellate Division of New Jersey. (Pl. Dep. 53:7-54:18.)

         B. Procedural History

         On April 17, 2014, Plaintiff commenced a civil action against various federal and municipal Defendants, contending that her constitutional rights were violated when she was arrested on or around September 21, 2012. [Docket Item 1.] Particularly, Plaintiff has characterized her claims as seeking to hold the federal and municipal Defendants liable for malicious prosecution, slander and filing false police reports with law enforcement. [Docket Item 66 at ¶ 4.] On April 27, 2016, Plaintiff consented to the dismissal of her claims against the Municipal Court Administrator for the City of Northfield, Donna Clark. [Docket Item 46.]

         On February 13, 2017, Federal Defendants Postmaster Kelly Hutchinson and the United States Postal Service filed a Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). [Docket Item 62.] On February 14, 2017, “Municipal Defendants, ” Sgt. Scott Pollak, Chief Robert James, Northfield Police Department and the City of Northfield, filed a separate Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). [Docket Item 63.] Plaintiff opposed both Motions for Summary Judgment. [Docket Items 65-66, 69.]


         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         At summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to examine the evidence in light most favorable to the non-moving party, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999); Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). Credibility determinations are not appropriate for the court to make at the summary judgment stage. Davis v. Portline Transportes Maritime Internacional, 16 F.3d 532, 536 n.3 (3d Cir. 1994).

         A factual dispute is material when it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and genuine when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The non-moving party “'need not match, item for item, each piece of evidence proffered by the movant, '” but must simply present more than a “mere scintilla” of evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Boyle v. Cnty. of Allegheny Pennsylvania, 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998)(quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         B. Plaintiff's Claims Against Federal Defendants

         Plaintiff seeks to hold Federal Defendants liable for alleged malicious prosecution, slander and filing false police reports with law enforcement . [Docket Item 66 at 4.] The Court has construed Plaintiff's pleadings and subsequent arguments as claims under the Civil Rights Act at 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671 et seq..

         1. Constitutional Claims Against Postmaster Hutchinson

         As to any constitutional claims against Postmaster Hutchinson, Federal Defendants argue that judgment should be entered for Defendant Hutchinson for the following reasons:

“(1) Plaintiff remains convicted and thus has not stated, and further is barred from seeking for, a claim of constitutional harm allegedly resulting from her arrest; (2) the factual basis of Plaintiff's conviction was the testimony of the arresting police officers regarding Plaintiff's actions after the officers arrived at the [p]ost [o]ffice, breaking the chain of causation between any action by Defendant Hutchinson and Plaintiff's conviction; and (3) Defendant Hutchinson is entitled to qualified immunity.”

[Docket Item 62-2 at 4.]

         In order to establish a constitutional claim for malicious prosecution pursuant to § 1983, a plaintiff must show the following: 1) that the defendant initiated a criminal proceeding; 2) that the criminal proceeding ended in the plaintiff's favor; 3) that the proceeding was initiated without probable cause; 4) that the defendant acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and 5) that the plaintiff suffered a deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal ...

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