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Lenart v. City of Wildwood

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 27, 2018

EDWARD LENART, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF WILDWOOD and JAMES A. STEVENS, JR., Defendants.

          STOPPER LOPEZ, LLC By: William Stopper, Esq., Attorneys for Plaintiff

          BIRCHMEIER & POWELL LLC By: James R. Birchmeier, Esq. Attorneys for Defendants

          OPINION

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff Edward Lenart asserts that Defendant City of Wildwood police officer, Defendant James A. Stevens, Jr., violated his federal constitutional rights when Stevens attempted to serve a temporary restraining order on Lenart, and shortly thereafter arrested Lenart for violating the restraining order.[1] Lenart was also charged with, and later convicted of, resisting arrest.

         Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.[2]

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In the evening of July 14, 2014, Defendant City of Wildwood Police Officer Stevens, and an unidentified police officer in training, responded to Plaintiff Lenart's home, dispatched to serve Lenart with a temporary restraining order granted to the woman living with Lenart, Patricia Smith. (Defs' Ex. B)[3] Stevens testified that the Wildwood Police had had “several” other “contacts” with Lenart and Smith “regarding domestic disputes and domestic violence” (Stevens Dep. p. 34), however, Lenart testified that the Wildwood Police had never been called to the Smith / Lenart residence before. (Lenart Dep. p. 30)

         Lenart's, Stevens' and Smith's versions of events are largely consistent as to how the encounter began. Stevens and the officer in training were let into the residence by Smith. (Lenart Dep. p. 38; Stevens Dep. p. 39; Smith Trial Testimony[4], p. 50) It is undisputed that there was no disturbance at the time[5]; Lenart was sitting on the couch watching television when the officers entered the room. (Id.)[6] Smith and Stevens testified that Lenart seemed “surprised” to see the police, and Lenart testified that he was “totally shocked.” (Stevens Dep. p. 47; Trial Transcript p. 50; Lenart Dep. p. 38)

         At this point, the parties' accounts diverge. Lenart and Smith testified that Stevens immediately began “yelling” and “screaming” and ordering Lenart “to get the hell out of here.” (Trial Transcript, p. 50; Lenart Dep. p. 38) Stevens testified that he “was calm”; he “wasn't yelling at [Lenart] or anything, ” but “explained” that Lenart “had to leave” and attempted to obtain Lenart's signature on the TRO. (Stevens Dep. p. 44)

         According to Lenart, “[Stevens] was like, this is a restraining order, you got to go. I said, fine, I'm out of here. . . . He said get all your stuff and get out of here. I said, I'm not taking any of my stuff. I have too much of it. I'm leaving.” (Lenart Dep. p. 38-39) In contrast, Stevens testified that “[Lenart] kept saying that he lived here, he wasn't gonna leave.” (Stevens Dep. p. 44) Stevens further testified, “I threatened to arrest him for not leaving . . . . It took him a little bit, a minute or so. After talking to him and explaining to him that he had to leave he did stand up.” (Stevens Dep. p. 47) Lenart then “walked” out of the house and stood on the sidewalk. (Lenart Dep. p. 39, 47; Stevens Dep. p. 48-49, 53) There is no evidence in the record that Lenart ever raised his voice or otherwise reacted violently.

         Once outside the house, Stevens testified that Lenart “continued to say that he wasn't leaving” and “kept saying that . . . [he'll] come back once [the police] leave.” (Stevens Dep. p. 51) According to Stevens, that's when Stevens “advised” Lenart that he was under arrest “for violating the Restraining Order, refusing to leave, ” although at this point Stevens testified that Lenart was, indeed, “in front of the house, ” not inside it. (Stevens Dep. p. 52)

         Lenart's testimony about the moments leading up to his arrest is different. Lenart testified that he “never” said he was going to come back to the property, instead he testified that he told Stevens he wanted to speak to his attorney before signing the TRO papers. (Lenart Dep. p. 42-43) As to what happened next, Lenart testified,

[Stevens] grabbed the papers out of my hands. I said, I'm leaving. And I turned around and I walked up the block. And . . . he was still screaming at me. . . . Look you piece of shit, I told you to sign these papers. And I didn't say anything. I told him I was leaving. I said, there's an order for me to leave the premises, I'm already off the premises, and I'm leaving. And I walked away. . . more than 75 . . . yards. . . . I stopped and turned around and [Stevens] was screaming my name from the sidewalk, yo Lenart, Lenart, Lenart, get your ass back here. . . . I stopped, I turned around . . . I walked all the way back. I got within . . . 18 inches to a foot. . . . [Stevens] lunged at me, grabbed me around the neck and shoulders, threw me to the ground.

         (Lenart Dep. p. 42-44) Smith's testimony from the Municipal Court trial corroborates Lenart's testimony; Smith testified that she watched from the house as Lenart walked down the street and “then the officer called him back.” (Trial Transcript, p. 50)

         Stevens testified that he and Lenart were standing “face to face” when he “told Mr. Lenart that he was under arrest” and “grabbed his one arm, ” at which point Lenart

started to like-- started to pull away from me, tried to pull away and get away, so I just pulled down and tripped him.
He went down on his stomach and then he continued to squirm and made it hard-- didn't comply and put his hands right behind his back, he was squirming around a little bit.
And after a brief struggle I forced his hands behind his back and placed him in handcuffs.

         (Stevens Dep. p. 53-54)

         Lenart denies resisting at all. (Lenart Dep. p. 46-47) Smith also testified that Lenart “did not resist arrest.” (Smith Trial Testimony, p. 51) Smith testified, “[Stevens] threw [Lenart] to the ground and beat -- excuse me -- the shit out of him.” (Id. at p. 50-51)

         Lenart testified that once he was on the ground,

Officer Stevens . . . tread on my right hand with his foot, like a stomp, came back and dropped on my . . . right knee, then he got up, tread on my left foot, laid back into my back with his . . . knee . . . . grabs my head and starts grinding my face . . . . grabs my right hand and then grabs my left hand and handcuffs me.

         (Lenart Dep. p. 44-46)

         Once handcuffed, Lenart testified that Stevens “literally threw me in [the backseat of the police car], smashing my forehead against the side of the panel of the car, the roof of the car . . . . He's kicking my feet to get in. . . . [H]e's trying to slam the door on my legs.” (Lenart Dep. p. 49)

         When Lenart arrived at the police station, he told unidentified officers that he “need[ed] medical attention.” (Lenart Dep. p. 55) When he arrived at the County jail, he told the nurse that he “need[ed] medical attention.” (Id.) “[A]pproximately a day and a half later, ” when Lenart was released on bail, Smith took pictures of Lenart's injuries (Trial Transcript, p. 51)[7], and took Lenart to Cape Regional Medical Center's emergency room. (Lenart Dep. p. 57) Lenart testified that his injuries included bruises and abrasions on his face, forehead, cheek, and chin; his right hand, forefinger and thumb were broken, requiring a cast; his right knee “ACL” was torn; and his left foot was in pain. (Lenart Dep. p. 57-59)

         Lenart was charged with violation of a restraining order in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9(b), and resisting arrest in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2. (Defs' Ex. B) He was only tried, however, on the resisting arrest charge, and was found guilty. (Defs' Ex. F) The Municipal Court imposed a sentence of five days in jail, with “credit for the two days” of time already served. (Trial Transcript, p. 75) Lenart's conviction was affirmed on appeal. (Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 10)[8]

         The Complaint asserts five counts, all pursuant to § 1983[9]: (1) false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (2) false imprisonment in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (3) excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (4) malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment; and (5) Monell[10] liability against the City of Wildwood.

         Defendants elected not to file a Motion to Dismiss. The instant Motion for Summary Judgment is the first dispositive motion filed in this case.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment shall be granted if “the movant shows 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). A fact is “material” if it will “affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law[.]” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if it could lead a “reasonable jury [to] return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         In determining the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact, a court's role is not to weigh the evidence; all reasonable “inferences, doubts, and issues of credibility should be resolved against the moving party.” Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corps., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1983). However, a mere “scintilla of evidence, ” without more, will not give rise to a genuine dispute for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Moreover, a court need not adopt the version of facts asserted by the nonmoving party if those facts are “utterly discredited by the record [so] that no reasonable jury” could believe them. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). In the face of such evidence, summary judgment is still appropriate “where the record . . . could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party[.]” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         The movant “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). Then, “when a properly supported motion for summary judgment [has been] made, the adverse party ‘must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). In the face of a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmovant's burden is rigorous: he “must point to concrete evidence in the record”; mere allegations, conclusions, conjecture, and speculation will not defeat summary judgment. Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 484 (3d Cir. 1995); accord Jackson v. Danberg, 594 F.3d 210, 227 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Acumed LLC v. Advanced Surgical Servs., Inc., 561 F.3d 199, 228 (3d Cir. 2009) (“[S]peculation and conjecture may not defeat summary judgment.”)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Heck Doctrine

         The Court first turns to an issue not raised by the parties but which frequently arises in § 1983 cases challenging an allegedly ...


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