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Bullock v. Borough of Roselle

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 31, 2018

BRIAN BULLOCK, Plaintiff,
v.
BOROUGH OF ROSELLE, CHIEF GERARD ORLANDO, in his individual and official capacity, DILMONTE PRYOR, JR., in his individual and official capacity, JAMES HOUSTON, in his individual and official capacity, JOHN LESHKO, in his individual and official capacity, and JOHN DOES 1-20, names being fictitious, Defendants.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Brian Bullock brings this action asserting violations of the federal and state civil rights statutes, as well as state law tort claims, in connection with police officers' alleged excessive use of force and pursuit of false charges against him. Two of the defendants, the Borough of Roselle and its Police Chief, Gerard Orlando, have filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (ECF no. 5) The remaining three named defendants, Delmonte[1] Pryor, Jr., James Houston, and John Leshko, all Roselle police officers, separately move to dismiss and join with Roselle's motion. (ECF no. 6) For the reasons stated herein, the motions to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part. The upshot, as counsel for the parties seem to recognize, is that this case will go forward primarily on a malicious prosecution theory.

         I. The Complaint

         The allegations of the complaint ("Cplt.", ECF no. 1) are taken as true for purposes of this motion. See Section II, infra. They are as follows:

         The plaintiff, Brian Bullock, is a resident of the Borough of Roselle, New Jersey. Defendant Gerard Orlando is the Roselle Police Chief; defendants Dilmonte Pryor, Jr., James Houston, and John Leshko are Roselle police officers. (Cplt. ¶¶ 1-7) Their departmental rank is not specified.

         Mr. Bullock alleges that on August 17, 2014, at 9:53 p.m., he was driving on Spruce Street in Roselle. A friend, Jerae Prather, was in the car. Near the intersection of 9th Avenue, Bullock saw a person shine a flashlight at his car, but nothing about the person's appearance seemed to identify him as a police officer. (Cplt. ¶ 13) Bullock turned right and continued to his destination, an address on 9th Avenue. (Cplt. ¶ 14)

         There, a police car, with Officers Pryor and Houston inside, pulled up beside Mr. Bullock's parked car. They ordered Bullock to get out of his car. (Cplt. ¶ 15) Pryor opened Bullock's car door and threatened to remove him forcibly. (Cplt. ¶ 16)

         Officers Pryor and Houston handcuffed Mr. Bullock and then pepper sprayed him before placing him in their police car. (Cplt. ¶¶ 17-18) They ignored his obvious medical distress. (Cplt. ¶¶ 19, 48) Officer Lesko at some point arrived on the scene. (Cplt. ¶ 20)

         Mr. Bullock was charged with "careless driving, failure to observe the direction of a police officer, tinted windows, driving under the influence, refusal, resisting arrest, harassment and disorderly conduct." (Cplt. ¶ 33) These charges, he alleges, were false and fabricated.

         On August 21, 2014, Mr. Bullock was again arrested on a complaint warrant charging him with harassment. The underlying allegation was that Bullock had verbally threatened Officer Pryor and his family at headquarters on the night of the initial arrest. (Cplt. ¶ 21)

         Trial of all the charges occurred in municipal court on March 1, 2016. I take judicial notice of the municipal court judge's findings and verdict, submitted as an exhibit. (ECF no. 9-1) The court found Mr. Bullock not guilty of careless driving, failure to observe the direction of a police officer, tinted glass, driving under the influence, refusal, and harassment. The court found Mr. Bullock guilty of the disorderly persons offense of resisting arrest and the petty disorderly persons offense of disorderly conduct.[2] The court's conclusions of law and disposition of the charges (ECF no. 9-1 at 14-24) may be summarized briefly as follows:

         In connection with acquitting Mr. Bullock of the tinted windows and reckless driving charges, the court found that there had been an insufficient basis to issue the tickets. The court found that Pryor lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Bullock, suppressed all after-acquired evidence of intoxication, and acquitted Bullock of the DWI charge. Although Bullock had admitted refusing to submit to an alcohol breath test, this charge, too, was found to be tainted by the invalid stop. The court commented more generally that the State should have introduced testimony of the other officer, Houston; that it had difficulty extracting a "linear interpretation" of the events from Pryor's testimony; and that inconsistencies emerged from a comparison of Pryor's testimony with the dashboard video.

         The charge of resisting arrest, on the other hand, was found to be sufficiently untainted by the unlawful stop. The court found that Mr. Bullock struggled, resisted being handcuffed by Officer Prior, and was subdued only with the aid of Officer Houston. The same conduct was found to support the disorderly conduct conviction.

         As to the final charge of harassment, based on alleged threatening comments by Bullock at the police station, the court found credible conflicting testimony, sufficient to create a reasonable doubt.

         The civil Complaint in this matter was filed on December 18, 2017. (ECF no. 1) It asserts ten Counts or causes of action:

Count I Pattern and practice Allegations (Municipal and Governmental Liability)
Count II 42 U.S.C. § 1983 - Unreasonable and Excessive Force
Count III Common Law Assault and Battery
Count IV 42 U.S.C. § 1983 - Malicious Prosecution
Count V 42 U.S.C. § 1985 - Conspiracy
Count VI 42 U.S.C. § 1983 - Supervisor Liability
Count VII Negligent Hiring/Training/Retention/ Supervision
Count IX[3] Violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act - N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to 2
Count VIII Negligent and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Count X Punitive Damages

         II. Standard on a Motion to Dismiss

         A. In General

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it 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, 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); see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) ("reasonable inferences" principle not undermined by later Supreme Court Twombly case, infra).

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and 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 plaintiffs 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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (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, 556 U.S. at 678 (2009).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has explicated Twombly/Iqbal and provided a three-step process for evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion:

To determine whether a complaint meets the pleading standard, our analysis unfolds in three steps. First, we outline the elements a plaintiff must plead to a state a claim for relief. See [Iqbal, 556 U.S.] at 675; Argueta, 643 F.3d at 73. Next, we peel away those allegations that are no more than conclusions and thus not entitled to the assumption of truth. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; Argueta, 643 F.3d at 73. Finally, we look for well-pled factual allegations, assume their veracity, and then "determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; Argueta, 643 F.3d at 73. This last step is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012).

         B. Consideration of Municipal Court Decision

         On this motion to dismiss, I have considered a post-trial written decision of the municipal court, dated March 1, 2016, which disposed of the criminal charges against the plaintiff, Mr. Bullock. (ECF no. 9-1; see pp. 3-4, supra.) I do so because that decision is integral to the allegations of the Complaint, and because another court's decision is subject to judicial notice.

         A court considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is generally confined to the allegations of the complaint, with a few exceptions:

Although phrased in relatively strict terms, we have declined to interpret this rule narrowly. In deciding motions under Rule 12(b)(6), courts may consider "documents] integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint," In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997) (emphasis in original), or any "undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiffs claims are based on the document," PBGC v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI), 822 F.3d 125, 134 n.7 (3d Cir. 2016). See also Schmidt v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014) ("However, an exception to the general rule is that a 'document integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint' may be considered 'without converting the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment."') (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory, 114 F.3d at 1426); Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

         In addition, another court's opinion may be considered without converting a motion to dismiss ...


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