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Alvarez v. City of Atlantic City

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 19, 2018

NORMA ALVAREZ and TIFFANY BAEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY and OFFICER JOSE GONZALEZ, Defendants.

          DAVID R. CASTELLANI CASTELLANI LAW FIRM, LLC On behalf of Plaintiffs

          MORRISON KENT FAIRBAIRN MICHAEL A. ARMSTRONG & ASSOCIATES, LLC On behalf of Defendant City of Atlantic City

          TRACY L. RILEY RACHEL M. CONTE LAW OFFICES OF RILEY & RILEY On behalf of Defendant Officer Jose Gonzalez

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter concerns claims by Plaintiff Tiffany Baez[1] of excessive use of force by Defendant Jose Gonzalez, an Atlantic City police officer, at an Atlantic City casino nightclub, and claims of municipal liability against the City of Atlantic City for having a policy and custom of condoning the use of excessive force. Presently before the Court is the motion of the Defendants to sever the trial of Baez's claims against Gonzalez and Atlantic City. For the reasons expressed below, Defendant's motion will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         In the early morning hours of March 23, 2013, Plaintiff and a group of female friends went to the Providence nightclub in the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. An incident took place in the women's restroom between one of the members of Baez's group and the ladies' room attendant. As a result of that incident, a Providence security guard and Gonzalez, an Atlantic City police officer who was working a special detail at the nightclub, told the entire group to leave the club. The women left the club without incident, but a few minutes later, Baez and the rest of the group returned. Within minutes Gonzalez approached them to again escort them from the club. An altercation ensued between Plaintiff and Gonzalez, which is the basis for Plaintiff's claims.[2] Plaintiff contends that Gonzalez violated her Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. Plaintiff also contends that Atlantic City violated her Fourth Amendment rights due to its policies and customs which condone its officers' use of excessive force.[3]

         Gonzalez moved for summary judgment, which the Court denied.[4] (Docket No. 64, 65.) The Court found that the evidence in the record, most of which was in dispute in light of the two very different accounts of what occurred, prevented the determination of whether Gonzalez's use of force was objectively reasonable. (Docket No. 64 at 11.) The Court also found that a video of the incident must be assessed by a jury because it could support various outcomes depending on how the jury viewed the video in combination with all the other evidence. (Id. at 12.)

         The matter is set for trial, and Defendants have moved to sever the trial into two parts. Defendants request that Plaintiff's claims against Gonzalez be tried first, and then only proceed with Plaintiff's municipal liability claims against Atlantic City if Plaintiff prevails on her excessive force claim against Gonzalez. Defendants argue that courts routinely order bifurcation in this type of case to expedite and economize the trial to save the court's, jury's, and the parties' time and resources.

         Defendants further contend that severing the excessive force claim from the municipal liability claim will prevent unfair prejudice to the individual officer defendant, where evidence of a policy and custom of the municipality will include unrelated internal affairs records and other excessive force incidents. Defendants also argue that bifurcation will not prejudice Plaintiff, and in fact will benefit Plaintiff because she will avoid presenting evidence that will be meaningless if the jury finds that Gonzalez did not use excessive force.

         Plaintiff does not see it that way. Plaintiff points out other courts do not bifurcate similar cases because they do not view bifurcation as promoting quicker or more efficient trials. Plaintiff also argues that a viable municipal liability claim is not dependent upon her first proving that Gonzalez violated her Fourth Amendment rights.

         A motion for separate trials is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b), which provides:

For convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues, claims, crossclaims, counterclaims, or third-party claims. When ordering a separate trial, the court must preserve any federal right to a jury trial.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(b). The district court is given broad discretion in reaching its decision whether to order separate trials. Thabault v. Chait, 541 ...


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