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Pratt v. City of Camden

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 29, 2018

ESTELLA PRATT, individually and as Personal Representative for the Estate of JEFFREY THOMAS, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CAMDEN, et al., Defendants.

          APPEARANCES: MELVIN M. WRIGHT, JR., ESQ. LAW OFFICES OF MELVIN M. WRIGHT, JR., LLC ANTHONY H. OGOZALEK, ESQ. LAW OFFICE OF ANTHONY H. OGOZALEK ATTORNEYS FOR PLAINTIFF

          DANIEL EDWARD RYBECK, ESQ., JOHN C. EASTLACK, JR., ESQ., LILIA LONDAR, ESQ. WEIR & PARTNERS ATTORNEYS FOR CITY DEFENDANTS

          MARVIN L. FREEMAN, ESQ. VINCENT J. RIZZO, JR., ESQ. STATE OF NEW JERSEY OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL ATTORNEYS FOR STATE DEFENDANTS

          OPINION

          JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In this matter, Plaintiff Estella Pratt (“Pratt” or “Plaintiff”), individually and as personal representative for the Estate of Jeffrey Thomas (“Thomas”), deceased, filed a civil action in connection with a police shooting that resulted in the death of her son, Mr. Thomas, on November 12, 2011. Pending before the Court are two motions for summary judgment: one filed by Defendants Terhan Hinson (“Officer Hinson” or “Hinson”), Mark Saunders (“Officer Saunders” or “Saunders”), John S. Thomson (“Chief Thomson” or “Thomson”), and the City of Camden (collectively, “the City Defendants”) [Docket Item 138]; and the second filed by Robert May (“Trooper May” or “May”), Matthew Moore (“Trooper Moore” or “Moore”), Jerome Moran (“Trooper Moran” or “Moran”), William Nuemann (“Trooper Nuemann” or “Nuemann”), Maurice Smith (“Trooper Smith” or “Smith”), Rick Fuentes (“Superintendent Fuentes” or “Fuentes”), the New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety, the New Jersey State Police (“NJSP”), and the State of New Jersey (collectively, “the State Defendants”). [Docket Item 139.]

         All discovery having been concluded, the principal issues to be decided, among others, are: (1) whether, giving all reasonable inferences to Plaintiff, Officers Hinson and Saunders (collectively, “the individual Officers”) and/or Troopers May, Moore, Moran, Nuemann, and Smith (collectively, “the individual Troopers) are entitled to qualified immunity; (2) whether there are genuine issues of material fact from which a jury could reasonably find that the use of deadly force by the individual Officers and Troopers violated Thomas' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and, if so, whether the City of Camden may be subject to § 1983 municipal liability under Monell; and (3) whether Chief Thomson and/or Superintendent Fuentes failed to adequately train the individual Officers and Troopers to properly confront mentally-disturbed persons, such as Thomas.

         For the reasons discussed below, the motions for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part. The Court will also defer ruling on summary judgment as to certain Counts involving the City of Camden and Chief Thomson, in his official capacity, and ask for supplemental briefing from Plaintiff and the City Defendants on the admissibility of Dr. James Williams's report and testimony. If necessary, the Court will then convene a Daubert hearing. After the Court rules on the admissibility of Dr. Williams's report and testimony and decides whether to grant summary judgment on the remaining Counts, the case will be set for Final Pretrial Conference or trial.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background [1]

         1. Thomas's Prior Mental Health Issues

         The late Jeffrey Thomas had a history of psychiatric problems. According to his mother, in April 2011, Thomas had been “faulting himself for not being there for his cousin that was killed . . . He wasn't himself. They said he was fine. He just needed sleep.” [Ex. 1 to Docket Item 138-2 (“Pratt Dep.”) at 31:4-17.] After going to the hospital, Thomas was diagnosed with insomnia. (Id. at 34:11-15.)

         In early October 2011, Thomas started complaining about serious headaches. (Id. at 34:20-21.) According to Pratt, “he [also] just kept saying, Mom, Mother, and when he called me Mom, I knew it was him. When he called me Mother, I knew it wasn't him. It seemed like two different people.” (Id. at 34:20-25.) On or about October 9, 2011, Pratt called an ambulance to transport Thomas to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital because he “kept saying that he had headaches and he couldn't remember nothing.” (Id. at 31:21-32:4.) Shortly after Thomas was admitted, “[t]hey put him in crisis [treatment].” (Id. at 32:6.)

         On October 10, 2011, Thomas was transferred from Our Lady Lourdes to Kennedy Hospital in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. [Ex. 4 to Docket Item 138-2 (“Kennedy Hospital Records”) at 1.] There, Thomas was initially diagnosed with “Schizoaffective Disorder/Cannabis Abuse.” (Id. at 2.) After he refused to sign consent forms to be admitted (id. at 4, 10), a nurse recommended that Thomas be involuntarily committed/hospitalized for “psychosis, medication stabilization.” (Id. at 15-16.) Dr. Amy McAndrew subsequently certified that Thomas should be involuntarily committed because, among other reasons “[t]his patient, if not committed, would be a danger to self or others or property by reason of [a] mental illness.” (Id. at 17-24.) On October 19, 2011, Thomas was prescribed Haldol, Cogentin, and Trazodone, [2] and discharged from Kennedy Hospital. (Id. at 44.)

         2. November 11-12, 2011 - the Night of the Shooting

         As of November 11, 2011, one of Pratt's daughters and a six-month-old granddaughter were living with her at 1153 Whitman Street in Camden, New Jersey. [Ex. 2 to Docket Item 138-2 (“Wallace Dep.”) at 10:17-11:24.] Thomas's girlfriend, Ciara Wallace, had also been living at the Pratt residence since December 2010. (Pratt Dep. at 30:5-9.) Thomas, however, was not living at his mother's home at this time because he had a prior criminal conviction and the Division of Youth and Family Services precluded him from living in the same house as Pratt's six-month-old granddaughter. (Wallace Dep. at 11:25-13:1; 30:12-24.)

         At or around 8:00 P.M. on November 11, 2011, Thomas arrived at the Pratt residence and, about an hour later, Thomas, Pratt, Wallace, Pratt's daughter, and Pratt's granddaughter ate dinner together. (Pratt Dep. at 43:1-2.) Around 9:30 P.M., Thomas and Wallace got in bed to go to sleep. (Wallace Dep. at 49:22-50:1.) Around 10:00 or 10:30 P.M., Thomas woke up and told Wallace he was going to the gas station to get something to drink and purchase marijuana to smoke. (Id. at 50:9-51:6.) Around the same time, Pratt asked Thomas to go out to buy her a soda, and Thomas left the house. (Pratt Dep. at 43:2-3.) Sometime between 11:00 P.M. and 12:00 A.M., Thomas returned to the Pratt residence with marijuana, but without the soda his mother had requested. (Wallace Dep. at 52:1-9; Pratt Dep. at 43:4-9.) When Thomas returned, Pratt asked him “didn't I ask you to get me something?” and Thomas responded, “yes, Mother. . . . I'm going to get you a soda right now.” (Id. at 43:9-15.) Thomas then left the house again. (Id. at 43:16.)

         When Thomas returned to the Pratt residence around 12:30 A.M., he “said something scary to [Wallace] at the door, and [she] told him [she] wasn't letting him in.” (Wallace Dep. at 52:19-21.) Wallace does not recall specifically what Thomas said, but she “just know[s] it was scaring [her].” (Id. at 52:22-24.) Wallace left the front door locked and went upstairs to Pratt's bedroom, but did not tell Pratt about the nature of the argument between Wallace and Thomas. (Id. at 53:4-12; Pratt Dep. at 51:18-52:4.)

         From outside the house, Thomas began shouting “Ciarra Wallace, open the door . . . we got to talk, we got to talk.” (Id. at 52:12-18.) Wallace responded to Thomas: “I'm not talking to you like that. I'm not talking to you like that.” (Id. at 52:19-20.) Thomas then began kicking the door “really crazy.” (Id. at 53:10.) At some point, Pratt went to the window and told Thomas to “[g]o get my soda. You didn't even bring me my soda back.” (Id. at 53:18-21.) Thomas told Pratt, “I'm going to get it right now, Mother. I'm going to get it right now.” (Id. at 53:22-23.) Before Thomas left, Wallace told him they were calling the police. (Wallace Dep. at 61:12-16.) Thereafter, Wallace saw Thomas walk away from the house. (Id. at 61:20-21.)

         Around this time, Wallace and Pratt called 9-1-1. (Pratt Dep. at 43:18.) According to a transcript of the 9-1-1 call, Wallace told the operator, “[m]y boyfriend is going crazy. . . . My buddy's acting a fool. I got him out of crisis like three times and now he's acting a fool again.” [Ex. 36 to Docket Item 138-7 (“9-1-1 Tr.”) at 2:9-15.] Pratt then got on the phone and told the police, “he didn't take his medication and he's banging on my door talking about . . . shotguns, fuck the cops and all this stuff. . . . I'm scared. I got a baby in here.” (Id. at 2:18-25.) Pratt described Thomas to the 9-1-1 operator and said, “He's just outside acting a fool.” (Id. at 3:6-7.)

         Officer Hinson was assigned the emergency call. [Ex. 5 to Docket Item 138-5 (“Hinson Dep.) at 78:1-3.] Five or ten minutes after Thomas left, but before Hinson arrived at the scene, an ambulance came to the Pratt residence. (Pratt Dep. at 43:22-25.) By the time Officer Hinson arrived, ambulance personnel were getting ready to leave because, as they told Officer Hinson, “there is nothing here.” (Hinson Dep. at 80:15-81:5.)

         Hinson was initially greeted at the Pratt house by Wallace, who immediately directed him upstairs to speak with Pratt. (Id. at 81:6-10.) According to Officer Hinson, after he asked Pratt what happened, she kept looking at Wallace, which made Hinson think “something wasn't quite right, ” and that the situation was more serious than a request for an ambulance. (Id. at 82:4-14.) Hinson testified that he spoke with Pratt and Wallace for approximately forty (40) minutes, during which time Pratt told him that, because Thomas was banging on the door, she instructed him to go get her a soda in an effort to defuse the situation. (Id. at 82:4-25.)

         Right before he left, Hinson testified that he told Pratt and Wallace “come on, tell me what's going on here, ” at which time Wallace told him that Thomas “got a gun.” (Id. at 84:7-15.) According to Officer Hinson, he then said to Pratt, “if [Thomas] has a gun, I don't know what to tell you, if he points the gun at somebody, we might have to do what we have to do. And we both know what that is. We will try, but we might have to do what we have to do if he points the weapon at somebody.” (Id. at 86:2-8.) Hinson left the Pratt residence, completed his report, and went to fill his vehicle at a nearby gas station. (Id. at 86:9-87:4.)

         Pratt remembers her encounter with Officer Hinson somewhat differently. According to Pratt, she quickly informed Officer Hinson that Thomas was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and told him “I need you to help me get him back in crisis [treatment].” (Pratt Dep. at 44:4-5; 59:1-2.) In response, Officer Hinson apparently asked if Thomas had a gun because, as Hinson told Pratt, “all young Camden boys have a gun.” (Id. at 44:5-6.) Pratt testified that Officer Hinson then asked a series of other “irrelevant” questions, including whether Thomas had a job and how he paid for his car. (Id. at 44:9-16; 59:7-14.) Pratt then reiterated that “I need you to help me get my son back in crisis because he is sick. He just got out and he is not ready to be released yet.” (Id. at 59:14-16.) According to Pratt, before leaving, Officer Hinson asked, “you sure he ain't got a gun?” and then said to Pratt, “well, I'm telling you, you all mother [sic] spoil these sons and then you want us to get them knowing they have guns. If he has a gun, we will have to do what we got to do.” (Id. at 59:22-60:3.) As he left, Officer Hinson told Pratt, “Ma'am, we are going to go find Jeffrey, ” and walked away. (Id. at 60:9-11.)

         Wallace recalls the conversation with Officer Hinson similarly to Pratt. According to Wallace, Pratt first told Officer Hinson, “my son is sick, he was just released from the hospital.” (Wallace Dep. at 62:22-24.) Officer Hinson then asked Pratt how old Thomas was, where he worked, who was paying for his car insurance, and whether he had previously been charged with any crimes. (Id. at 62:24-63:14.) Wallace remembers Pratt stopping Hinson at this point and saying “this is irrelevant to the situation. My son is still out there, sick, and we are having a conversation when anything could be going on out there.” (Id. at 63:12-16.) Wallace testified that Hinson responded, “I'm just trying to figure out what type of brother he is.” (Id. at 63:16-17.) According to Wallace, Hinson also asked Pratt if Thomas was “spoiled, ” and said “you mothers want us to go out and rescue your kids knowing they have guns, and you all need to stop spoiling your kids. You ought to put him on a leash.” (Id. at 63:21-64:1.) Before leaving, Wallace remembers Officer Hinson telling Pratt that, in order to apprehend him, “we got to do what we got to do.” (Id. at 63:20-21.)

         A few minutes after Officer Hinson left the Pratt residence, Thomas returned and began jumping up and down outside the house and calling Wallace's name. (Pratt Dep. at 44:16-20; Wallace Dep. at 68:1-4.) Looking out the window, Wallace testified that she saw Thomas had a gun in his hand at this time. (Id. at 56:4-11.) Pratt then called the police again and, according a transcript of the second 9-1-1 call, told the operator, “Please tell them to come on. Please. My son's outside with a gun.” (9-1-1 Tr. at 6:13-14; 23-25.)

         Officer Saunders was assigned to respond to the second call for a “man with a gun.” [Ex. 19 to Docket Item 138-5 (“Saunders Dep.”) at 39:20-41:4.] While refueling his car, Officer Hinson also heard the dispatcher relay the second 9-1-1 call on his radio. (Hinson Dep. at 87:4-6.) When Hinson discovered that Saunders had been assigned the call, he notified the dispatcher and Saunders that he would assist. (Id. at 87:4-88:3; Saunders Dep. at 24:21-25:1.) Hinson testified that, at this time, he decided: “I'm going to get with Mark, it's going to take us a little while, we're going to party up and come up with a plan how to get this guy. Because if we didn't get him, in the sense when I say get him, get him what he needed because basically get him to the mental - to Steinature.” (Hinson Dep. at 88:11-17.)

         Around this time, Troopers Robert May and Maurice Smith, who were in a vehicle together on patrol in Camden City, overheard the radio communications regarding Thomas having a gun and decided to respond to the scene. [Ex. 32 to Docket Item 132 (“Smith Dep.”) at 31:2-9; 32:15-23.] Troopers Jerome Moran, Matthew Moore, and William Neumann were in another vehicle together in Camden City when they too overheard the radio call, and also proceeded to the scene. [Ex. 35 to Docket Item 138-7 (“Moore Dep.”) at 26:22-27:12; Ex. 37 to Docket Item 138-7 (“Moran Dep.”) at 21:22-22:2, 29:4-13, 36:9-37:19; Ex. 38 to Docket Item 138-7 (“Neumann Dep.”) at 26:19-2.]

         Before arriving at Pratt's home, Officers Hinson and Saunders “sat at West Jersey Hospital which is a few blocks away from the house and . . . came up with a little plan on how [they] were going to do it. And the plan would have been to come up . . . use the tactical approach [and] blackout [their vehicles], [Hinson] will take him one side of the street and [Saunders] will take the other side.” (Hinson Dep. at 88:21-90:6.) Hinson and Saunders then approached Pratt's house with their car lights completely off. (Id. at 89:10-13.) While Hinson and Saunders approached a dark purple or blue car located near the Pratt residence, Hinson saw a man getting into or out of the vehicle. (Id. at 89:13-20; 94:10-12.) As the man saw the officers approaching, “he motioned like he didn't know what to do, whether to get back in the car or run away from the car at that time.” (Id. at 95:3-5.) Hinson and Saunders then attempted a “felony car stop, ” which Hinson described as “wait[ing], giving out verbal commands without using our weapon, using instructive authority meaning training my weapon on this individual which I believe is armed.” (Id. at 95:9-15.) Saunders and Hinson next assumed a position behind their car doors, and told the man “get out, get on the ground.” (Id. at 96:5-6.)

         Rather than listen to the Officers' commands, the man fled on foot. (Id. at 96:8.) According to Saunders, when the man fled, his car started rolling downhill and hit Officer Saunders' car. (Saunders Dep. at 32:17-33:4.) Pratt testified she heard what sounded like a car accident and was told by Wallace that Thomas had jumped out of the car and started running. (Pratt Dep. at 44:23-45:3.)

         Officer Hinson testified that he told Saunders to stay with the vehicle to prevent the man from returning to his car. (Hinson Dep. at 96:24-97:5.) Hinson then re-holstered his weapon, entered his own vehicle, and drove in the direction in which the man had taken off. (Id. at 98:3-7.) After turning the corner and not seeing the man, Hinson decided to park and exit his vehicle to look around. (Id. at 99:1-17.) Hinson initially left his weapon on a seat of his car. (Id. at 99:7-10.) Quickly after exiting his vehicle, Hinson heard a noise in the bushes nearby and, while reaching back into his vehicle to grab his weapon, saw a man emerge from the bushes, walk past him, and head back in the direction from which Hinson had just come. (Id. at 99:17-18, 101:9-12.) Hinson, believing the individual coming out of the bushes was Thomas, followed the man on foot from a distance of approximately four to five houses behind him. (Id. at 101:15-102:4.) Hinson followed the man back toward the location of Saunders' vehicle. (Id. at 104:20-104:2.) Shortly before reaching Saunders, Hinson shouted out: “hey buddy, can I talk to you for a minute? Come here. Come here, bud.” (Id. at 107:3-4.) According to Hinson, the man looked back and started to walk “real fast, ” so Hinson again said, “hey, come here, man.” (Id. at 107:6-11.) Around the same time, Saunders started pursuing the man from a distance of ten to fifteen feet, and verbally commanded the man to come back. (Saunders Dep. at 51:13-52:1.)

         As the man reached the intersection of Everette Street and Rose Street, an NJSP vehicle pulled up full of State Troopers in clearly marked police regalia. (Hinson Dep. at 107:11-23.) Upon seeing Thomas, Trooper May exited the vehicle and yelled “State Police!” at which time the man began to run. [Ex. 3 to Docket Item 138-2 (“May Dep.”) at 42:24-45:3.] Hinson and Saunders both heard the NJSP Troopers yell verbal commands to Thomas. (Hinson Dep. at 108:24-25; Saunders Dep. at 62:17-63:2.) The man continued to run across Rose Street towards a park located between Whitman Street and Everette Street. [Hinson Dep. at 108:24-109:9; see also Ex. 33 to Docket Item 138-6.]

         What happened next is heavily contested by the parties.

         On one hand, all seven Officers and Troopers testified that they either saw or believed they saw the man (later identified as Thomas) holding, pointing, racking, and/or shooting or trying to shoot a gun in the direction of law enforcement officers before they fired any shots. (See Hinson Dep. at 112:22-114:5; Saunders Dep. at 72:7-10; May Dep. at 58:16-22; Moran Dep. at 48:23-49:23, 51:13-52:11; Neumann Dep. at 46:13-25; Smith Dep. at 68:1-10; Moore Dep. at 41:17-42:13.) Trooper Neumann also testified that he retrieved a weapon from Thomas's hand after the shooting stopped and Thomas was laying on the ground. (Neumann Dep. at 57:6-18.)

         On the other hand, Pratt testified that she saw Thomas from her window[3] “facing [her] with his hands up” right before he was shot, and that she clearly saw “[h]e had his hands up and I never seen nothing in his hands.” (Pratt Dep. at 45:7-8, 65:3-17.) Wallace testified that she observed the incident from the bedroom window, did not see a gun in Thomas's hand at any point, and that, right before he was shot, Thomas stopped, put his hands up, and got down in a surrendering position with one knee down and his hands up. (Wallace Dep. at 77:23-79:12.) Pratt's neighbor, Sonia Rodriguez (“Rodriguez”), testified that, after the police told Thomas to surrender, “Jeffrey doesn't say nothing. He was saying nothing. He just do like this, bend down like that, and they started shooting on him.” [Ex. 34 to Docket Item 138-7 (“Rodriguez Dep.”) at 37:20-38:5.] Yet another neighbor, David Harris (“Harris”), testified that he observed Thomas being shot while “he was trying to go down, like he was trying to, like, go down, like, and then that's when they just start shooting.” [Ex. 39 to Docket Item 138-7 (“Harris Dep.”) at 47:4-12.][4]

         At the time of the incident, NJSP had a Standard Operating Procedure (“SOP”) in place to deal with the “Handling of Mentally Ill. Persons.” [Ex. A to Docket Item 142-1, NJSP SOP F52, effective May 20, 2011.] CCPD enacted its own SOP for the “Handling of Emotionally Disturbed Persons” two weeks after the shooting, on November 23, 2011. [Ex. B to Docket Item 142-1, Camden City Police SOP Vol. 3, Chap. 21, effective Nov. 23, 2011.]

         3. Post-Shootin ...


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