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Brunson v. State

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 12, 2018

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Defendants.


          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges state and federal civil rights claims against the State of New Jersey; the Essex County Prosecutor's Office (“ECPO”), Quovella M. Spruill (“Spruill”) in her official and individual capacities, Robert D. Laurino (“Laurino”) in his official and individual capacities, (collectively, the “ECPO Defendants”); the City of East Orange, East Orange Police Chief William C. Robinson in his individual and official capacities, Officer Green[1] of the East Orange Police Department in her individual and official capacities; Essex County, the Essex County Jail, Essex County Sheriff Armando B. Fontoura; John Doe(s) 1-10, and ABC Entities 1-10.[2]

         Now pending before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint filed by the State of New Jersey and the ECPO Defendants, including Defendants Spruill and Laurino in both their individual and official capacities. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), (b)(6). Plaintiff filed a Cross-Motion to Compel Disclosures under Rule 26. There was no oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is GRANTED and all claims against the ECPO Defendants and the State are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Plaintiff's discovery motion is DENIED. Claims against the other Defendants named above-including Essex County and the City of East Orange-remain pending.

         I. BACKGROUND:

         In 2015, Plaintiff Chiffone Brunson, a New Jersey resident, temporarily relocated to St. Lucie County, Florida, to care for her ill father. Am. Compl. ¶ 25, ECF No. 22. On June 23, 2015, a St. Lucie police officer executed a traffic stop on Plaintiff for failing to stop at a red light.[3] See Id. ¶ 38. Upon conducting a routine background check, the officer discovered an outstanding arrest warrant for Plaintiff in East Orange, New Jersey. Id. ¶ 39. The warrant based on Plaintiff's suspected involvement in the 2015 robbery of a grocery store in East Orange, which was captured on store surveillance video. Id. ¶¶ 30, 31. That video depicted a female with a tattoo on her upper left arm. Id.

         On or about June 24, 2015, local authorities notified the Essex County Sheriff's Office of Plaintiff's arrest. St. Lucie officers provided East Orange police with photographs of a tattoo located on Plaintiff's lower arm that depicted her daughters' names and flowers. Id. ¶ 30. These photographs did not align with the appearance of the suspect caught on video and thought to be Plaintiff. According to the Amended Complaint, “[e]ven the most cursory review of the videotape obtained from the store's surveillance system would have revealed, based on a comparison of tattoos, that [Plaintiff] did not perpetrate the crime.” Id. ¶ 31. Nevertheless, Defendants John Doe Officer #1 and Officer Green provided the video and photographs to ECPO “to support an indictment against [Plaintiff] as the perpetrator of the crime, despite . . . [knowledge] that this evidence was, in fact, exculpatory.” Id. ¶ 32.[4]

         Among the ECPO employees who reviewed the photographs and surveillance tape were Defendants Laurino and Spruill. Defendant Laurino was Acting First Assistant Prosecutor for Essex County. Spruill's title was Temporary Acting Chief of Investigators assigned to ECPO, responsible for, inter alia, “facilitating the overall extradition process . . . and whose duties included personally reviewing files to ensure that all ECPO policies and procedures regarding investigative support were complied with.” Id. ¶ 12.” Plaintiff alleges that the ECPO Defendants “willfully failed to verify the identity of [Plaintiff] as the correct suspect . . . .” Id. ¶ 35. On June 25, 2017, based on the tattoo photographs and surveillance video, the ECPO Defendants initiated an extradition request in to prosecute Plaintiff back in New Jersey. Id. ¶ 45. According to Plaintiff, Assistant Prosecutor John Doe #5 “willfully failed to notify the judge who issued the extradition order that the surveillance video did not depict [Plaintiff] as the perpetrator of the crime . . . .” Id. ¶ 46.

         On June 28, 2015, after four days in the custody of the St. Lucie County Sherriff's Office, id. ¶ 48, two unnamed members of the Essex County Sheriff's Department (Officers # 3 and #4) picked up Plaintiff and transported her by motor vehicle back to New Jersey. Id. ¶ 50. The trip took several days, during which time Plaintiff was required to eat and sleep in the vehicle. Id. ¶ 51.

         On July 8, 2015, Plaintiff was incarcerated in the Essex County Jail. Id. ¶ 52. During Plaintiff's incarceration, Assistant Prosecutor John Doe #5 attempted to extract a guilty plea by informing Plaintiff's Public Defender that video evidence in the State's possession showed Plaintiff committing the burglary, whereupon the Public Defender advised Plaintiff to plead guilty. Id. ¶ 54. Plaintiff refused, and remained incarcerated for over a month. Id. ¶ 55. She made a court appearance on August 17, 2017. Id. ¶ 62. Upon reviewing the surveillance video, the judge dismissed all charges against Plaintiff. Id. She had spent a total of 55 days in custody. Id. ¶ 63.

         Plaintiff initially filed her complaint on June 21, 2017, against the ECPO Defendants, the City of East Orange, the East Orange Police Department, Essex County, Essex County Jail, Essex County Sherriff Armando B. Fontoura, Officer Green, Essex County Chief of Police William C. Robinson, Essex County Prosecutor's Office (“ECPO”), Laurino, Spruill, and other unnamed or fictitious individuals and entities. ECF No. 1. The parties then stipulated to dismissal of the East Orange Police Department. ECF No. 18. Plaintiff filed her amended complaint on February 2, 2018. ECF No. 22. On March 2, 2018, a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) was filed by the State of New Jersey, ECPO, and Laurino and Spruill, in both their official and individual capacities. Plaintiff conceded to dismissal of the State in light of sovereign immunity, ECF No. 18, but opposes dismissal of the ECPO Defendants. Plaintiff's opposition paper also includes a cross-motion to compel ECPO Defendants to comply with certain Rule 26 disclosure requests. This Opinion addresses both the motion to dismiss and Plaintiff's Rule 26 motion.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must take all allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975); Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998).

         Although a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitlement to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiff's right to relief above a speculative level, such that it is “plausible on its face.” See Id. at 570; see also Umland v. PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc., 542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008). 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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). While “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (2009).[5]


         This Court has subject matter jurisdiction under, inter alia, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and pendant jurisdiction over the state claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Title 42, Section 1983 provides relief for the deprivation of any right secured by the Constitution and laws by a “person” acting “under color of any [State] statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1985 provides relief for conspiracy to interfere with civil rights in three separate scenarios. See § 1985(c). Plaintiff asserts seven causes of action against Defendants:

Count 1: 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 1981, & 1985 for deprivation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights, including those secured under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. U.S. Const. amend. IV, XIV;
Count 2: New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”), N.J. Const. art. I;
Count 3: Negligence;
Count 4: Abuse of ...

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