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Catalano v. City of Newark

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 8, 2017

DANIEL CATALANO, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF NEWARK, DET. THOMAS DEL MAURO, DET. BRIAN COSTA, and P.O. EDWARD SANTIAGO, Defendants.

          AMENDED OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Daniel Catalano, was a pretrial detainee at the Monmouth County Jail, in Freehold, New Jersey, when he commenced this action.[1] He is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis with a civil rights complaint filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         Now before this Court is a motion by defendants to dismiss Mr. Catalano's fourth amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Irrespective of that motion, however, the Court is obligated to review the fourth amended complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) to determine whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from suit. Upon review, Mr. Catalano's fourth amended complaint will be permitted to proceed.

         The Court also decides defendants' unopposed motion to dismiss the fourth amended complaint. For the reasons stated below, the motion will granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Catalano commenced this action on June 19, 2015, with a complaint against the Newark Police Department and two unknown officers. (ECF No. 1.) This Court, after performing a screening review, found that Mr. Catalano stated claims of unlawful search and seizure, false arrest, and false imprisonment against the unknown officers, and it gave Mr. Catalano ninety days to file an amended complaint identifying those defendants. (ECF Nos. 3, 4.) The Court further dismissed the complaint with prejudice as against the Newark Police Department, which is not an independent entity that can sue or be sued. Construing the allegations liberally as being asserted against the City of Newark ("the City"), I nevertheless found that the complaint failed to state a municipal liability claim under Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). (ECF Nos. 3, 4.)

         Mr. Catalano filed a first amended complaint on October 29, 2015, alleging claims against the City and again against two unknown officers. (ECF No. 6.) An accompanying letter explained that Mr. Catalano had "filed numerous public records requests with Newark, " but had not yet received any identification of the officers who arrested him. (ECF No. 6-1.) Upon screening, this Court found that the first amended complaint stated the same claims against the unknown-officer defendants and further found that this time Mr. Catalano stated a Monell claim against the City. (ECF No. 7.)

         On November 30, 2015, Mr. Catalano filed a second amended complaint. (ECF No. 10.) The claims asserted in this complaint were substantively the same as those raised in the first amended complaint, but in the place of unknown defendants it named three specific officers: Det. Thomas Del Mauro, Det. Brian Costa, and P.O. Edward Santiago. (Id.) The Court accepted the complaint for filing and directed that it be served upon the defendants. (ECF No. 11.)

         Defendants thereafter filed a motion to dismiss the second amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 27.) Mr. Catalano, in response, moved to file, and concurrently did file, a third amended complaint. (ECF Nos. 28, 29.) In November 2016, he moved to file a fourth amended complaint. (ECF No. 38.)

         On January 19, 2017, this Court granted the motion to file a fourth amended complaint and administratively terminated the dismissal motion and the motion to file a third amended complaint. (ECF No. 40.) It also notified Mr. Catalano that no further amendments would be accepted without a proper motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15. (Id.)

         III. ALLEGATIONS OF THE FOURTH AMENDED COMPLAINT

         The fourth amended complaint (ECF No. 42) presents the following allegations, which will be construed as true for the purposes of this opinion.

         The fourth amended complaint alleges that Mr. Catalano and non-party Nicholas Frunzi, both of whom are white (a fact relevant to his claims), were in a vehicle parked on Johnson Avenue in Newark at approximately 9:00 p.m. on August 20, 2013. It alleges that Mr. Catalano and Mr. Frunzi turned left onto Clinton Avenue and saw a white minivan (i.e., not a marked police vehicle) parked on the street. Mr. Frunzi, who was driving, "committed no traffic offenses, " but the complaint states that the white minivan "made a u-turn on Clinton Ave. to follow" their car. The complaint recounts that the defendant police officers, who were in the white minivan, pulled up next to Mr. Catalano and Mr. Frunzi while stopped at a traffic light and yelled, "Where are you from?" They did not, however, identify themselves as police officers. Mr. Catalano states that he ignored the question and that he and Mr. Frunzi drove away. Defendants then stopped Mr. Catalano and Mr. Frunzi.

         Mr. Catalano alleges that defendants immediately began searching him, Mr. Frunzi, and the vehicle, without at first asking any questions. He contends that he and Mr. Frunzi denied accusations that they had been buying drugs. The complaint states that, despite finding no drugs or any other contraband, defendants arrested Mr. Catalano and Mr. Frunzi and placed them in the rear of the white minivan. It asserts that defendants then drove to Johnson Avenue and arrested two more people "simply because their ID did not list Johnson Ave as their address."

         Mr. Catalano recounts that he was placed in a holding cell for twelve hours following his arrest and then released. When he appeared for a trial on October 9, 2013, the single charge of "wandering to obtain CDS" was dismissed "because even assuming arguendo that what the officers wrote in the report was true it did not constitute a crime."

         The complaint asserts that various statements in the report of his arrest were false, and that officers of the Newark Police Department have, as a matter of practice, inserted fabricated statements in reports to justify otherwise improper arrests. It further contends that the Newark Police Department has a custom and practice of using "racial stereotypes in their decisionmaking as it relates to stopping, detaining, or making arrests." Mr. Catalano asserts that the Newark Police Department knew of this because of U.S. Department of Justice oversight reports, civilian complaints, and testimony as to such practices, including estimates that up to 75% of stops by Newark police were unconstitutional. Despite this, Mr. Catalano alleges, the Newark Police Department failed to take corrective action or make changes to police training.

         Like the first amended complaint, the fourth amended complaint asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unlawful search, false arrest, and false imprisonment against the defendant officers (now identified) and for Momll liability against the City. The fourth amended complaint also adds a claim against the defendant officers under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for racial profiling and selective enforcement. In support of this claim, Mr. Catalano alleges that defendants "signaled [sic] out the plaintiff because of his race, or more simply put, because he is white, and was in a majority African American neighborhood, that defendants allege is a known drug area." Mr. Catalano notes that defendants did not stop "persons driving off the street who did not appear to be white." He thus alleges that defendants "relied on cultural stereotypes that white persons were in the area to purchase narcotics."

         The fourth amended complaint seeks compensatory damages, including compensation for pain, suffering, and humiliation, with pre- and post-judgment interest, as well as punitive damages.

         IV. SCREENING OF THE FOURTH AMENDED COMPLAINT

         Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (Apr. 26, 1996) ("the PLRA"), district courts must review a complaint when the plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss claims that are frivolous or malicious, that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See id As the fourth amended complaint has not yet been subject to this mandatory screening, the Court now reviews that pleading.

         "The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)." Schream v. Seana, 506 Fed.Appx. 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012). That standard is set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). To survive the Court's screening for failure to state a claim, the complaint must allege "sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks 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." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014). "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do."' Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. At 555).

         Pro se pleadings, as always, will be liberally construed. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Ghtnk v. Noone, 689 Fed.Appx. 137, 139 (3d Cir. 2017). Nevertheless, "pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim." Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013).

         In Mr. Catalano's fourth amended complaint, the first cause of action, for unlawful search, false arrest, and false imprisonment, and the second cause of action, a Monell claim against the City, are substantially the same as those claims asserted in prior complaints, which have already been subject to screening review by the Court. (See ECF Nos. 1, 3, 4, 6, 7.) They will be permitted to proceed for the reasons stated in the earlier opinions. (ECF Nos. 3, 7.)

         Mr. Catalano's equal protection claim, however, is new to this pleading, and, as Mr. Catalano is still proceeding in forma pauperis, the Court will screen it under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). To state an equal protection claim for racial profiling or selective enforcement, a plaintiff must allege that acts by law enforcement "(1) had a discriminatory effect and (2) were motivated by a discriminatory purpose." Bradley v. United States, 299 F.3d 197, 205 (3d Cir. 2002); see also Patterson v. Strippoli, 639 Fed.Appx. 137, 144 (3d Cir. 2016) (selective enforcement); Alvin v. Calabrese, 455 Fed.Appx. 171, 177 (3d Cir. 2011) (racial profiling). Establishing discriminatory effect requires that a plaintiff was a member of a protected class who received different treatment than similarly situated persons in an unprotected class. Alvin, 455 Fed.Appx. at 177; Bradley, 299 F.3d at 206. A plaintiff must show discriminatory purpose by demonstrating that the defendant took the challenged action "at least partially because the action would benefit or burden an identifiable group." Doe ex rel. Doe v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 665 F.3d 524, 548 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Pers. Adm 'r v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 279 (1979)); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676-77.

         In this case, Mr. Catalano alleges that defendants stopped and arrested him and Mr. Frunzi, who were white, while not stopping non-white persons who were engaged in similar behavior. (See ECF No. 42 ¶¶ 72-76.) Mr. Catalano contends that defendants "relied on cultural stereotypes that white persons were in the area to purchase narcotics, " that there were no other facts at all that would have supported an inference that he was buying drugs, and that there was a history of discriminatory stops by the Newark Police Department. The allegations are thin, and proof may be difficult, but I will permit the equal protection claim to proceed.

         V. DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

         Defendants have now filed a motion to dismiss the fourth amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 45.) Defendants raise arguments that the Newark Police Department is not a proper defendant in this case, that Mr. Catalano fails to state claims for false arrest or false imprisonment, that the claims against the defendant officers are time barred, that Mr. Catalano fails to state a claim for supervisory liability, that Mr. Catalano fails to state a claim for Monell liability, that Mr. Catalano fails to state a claim for racial profiling or selective enforcement, that claims against the defendant officers are barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity, and that Mr. Catalano's demands for punitive damages and prejudgment interest must be dismissed. (Id.)

         Mr. Catalano, despite receiving an extension of time to do so (see ECF No. 46), filed no papers opposing this motion. Nevertheless, consistent with the well-established preference for deciding claims on their merits rather than on procedural technicalities, see Dole v. Arco Chem. Co., 921 F.2d 484, 487 (3d Cir. 1990), the Court reviews the substantive arguments advanced in this motion as applied to the fourth amended complaint.

         As discussed above, the legal standard for deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is the same as that used for screening review under the PLRA. As the Court has already outlined this standard in the screening portion of this opinion, I do not repeat it here.

         a. Newark Police Department as ...


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