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White v. City of Vineland

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 24, 2018

PAMELA WHITE, as administratix ad prosequendem of the estate of Phillip George White, deceased, IYONNA HANNAH, and T.H., a minor, by and through his guardian, Tamyra Downing, Plaintiffs,
CITY OF VINELAND, VINELAND POLICE CHIEF TIMOTHY CODISPOTI, LOUIS PLATANIA, RICHARD JANSIAK, AND, JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 10, individually and/or in their official capacities, jointly, severally, and/or in the alternative, Defendants.

          SHARON A. KING STANLEY O. KING KING & KING, LLC On behalf of Plaintiffs

          TODD J. GELFAND BARKER, GELFAND & JAMES LINWOOD GREENE - SUITE On behalf of Defendants City of Vineland, Timothy Codispoti, and Louis Platania


          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case concerns alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), and various New Jersey state common law tort claims. Presently before the Court is Defendants'[1] Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and Plaintiffs' opposition. For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' motion will be granted with leave to replead certain claims.


         We take our brief recitation of the facts from Plaintiff's initial complaint. Phillip George White visited a friend's home on West Grape Street in Vineland on March 31, 2015. While speaking with his friend, White raised his voice, causing a neighbor to call the police and report a disturbance. Shortly thereafter White lowered his voice, apologized to his friend, and walked over to the home's chain link fence. Defendant Louis Platania, a police officer with the Vineland Police Department (the “Police Department”) responded to the call and was the first to arrive at the scene.

         Officer Platania found White leaning against the fence outside his friend's home. Officer Platania stated that he was responding to a report of a disturbance, and White's friend responded that there was no disturbance. Officer Platania approached White and asked if he was “okay.” White responded that he was “okay” and started to walk away from Officer Platania. Plaintiffs allege that Officer Platania “had a history of harassing White and other African-American men in Vineland” including detention, searches, and interrogation without cause.

         In response to White walking away, Officer Platania grabbed him and slammed him onto two cars before forcing him to the ground. White was motionless and appeared to have been rendered unconscious. Officer Platania continued to strike White while he was on the ground, repeatedly ordering that he turn over. An unidentified bystander told Officer Platania that White was “knocked out” and that he should “get off” of White, but Officer Platania ignored the bystander.

         At some point, Defendant Richard Janasiak, another officer with the Police Department, arrived at the scene with a police dog. While Officer Platania held White on the ground and instructed the police dog to “get him, ” Officer Janasiak released the police dog onto White. Officer Platania continued to instruct the police dog to “hold” even as a bystander told the officers that White was unconscious and motionless. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiffs allege that Officer Platania shouted into his police radio “let go of my gun” even though White never reached for Officer Platania's gun. Officer Janasiak is also alleged to have twisted White's ankle during this time.

         After the incident, Defendant John Doe 1 - another Vineland police officer at the scene - took an unidentified bystander's phone after the bystander stated that he had recorded the entire incident on his phone. White was taken to Inspira Medical Center in Vineland and was pronounced dead in the emergency room.

         Following this incident, Plaintiffs allege that the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey conducted an investigation “into use of force practices by members of the Vineland Police Department.” In 2014, this investigation found that 37.4% of persons subjected to force by Vineland police officers were African-American, even though they represent only 14.1% of the population. In the first quarter of 2015, which would include the date that this incident occurred, the percentage had increased to approximately 40%. Plaintiffs allege that these statistics support their contention that Timothy Codispoti (“Chief Codispoti”), Chief of the Police Department, and the City of Vineland (“Vineland”) “were aware of and condoned their officers' discriminatory conduct against the African American segment of the Vineland community.” Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that it was the policy and custom of Chief Codispoti and Vineland to condone the alleged misconduct contained in civilian complaints. In support, Plaintiffs allege that of the 190 civilian complaints of excessive force filed between 2009 and 2014, only 185 were investigated and none were sustained. Plaintiffs also allege that of the 24 civilian complaints of improper arrest filed between 2009 and 2014 only 22 were investigated and none were sustained. The necessary implication, Plaintiffs assert is that Vineland “[o]fficers engaging in misconduct were therefore not disciplined nor provided with appropriate in-service training or retraining.” Plaintiffs, Pamela White, White's mother and the administratrix of his estate, Iyonna Hannah, White's adult daughter, and T.H., White's minor son, filed their complaint on November 7, 2016. Defendants filed their Answer on February 10, 2017 and their Motion to Dismiss, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) on February 12, 2018. Plaintiffs filed their opposition on March 26, 2018.


         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         B. Standard for Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

         A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings may be filed after the pleadings are closed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c); Turbe v. Gov't of V.I., 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991). In analyzing a Rule 12(c) motion, a court applies the same legal standards as applicable to a motion filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe, 938 F.2d at 428. Thus, a court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005).

         A district court, in weighing a motion to dismiss, asks “not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claim[].” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 583 (2007) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236(1974)); see also Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (stating the “Supreme Court's Twombly formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus: ‘stating . . . a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest' the required element. This ‘does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage,' but instead ‘simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary element”). A court need not credit either “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions” in a complaint when deciding a motion to dismiss. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997). The defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         In addition, “on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, ” a court “reviews not only the complaint but also the answer and any written instruments and exhibits attached to the pleadings.” Perelman v. Perelman, 919 F.Supp.2d 512, 520 n.2 (E.D. Pa. 2013).

         C. Facts Outside of Complaint Referenced in Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         In responding to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiffs reference discovery received after service of the complaint concerning the disciplinary file of Officer Platania. Allegedly, this file contains over 1, 600 pages disclosing 47 complaints lodged against Platania between 2009 and 2015. These files were not attached to Plaintiffs' brief, but are instead referenced in an attached certification of Sharon A. King, counsel for Plaintiffs (“King Certification”).

         Although Rule 12(d) provides that a court should treat a Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c) motion as a motion for summary judgment whenever matters outside the pleadings are considered, the Third Circuit has clarified that “[m]erely attaching documents to a Rule 12(c) motion . . . does not convert it to a motion under Rule 56.” CitiSteel USA, Inc. v. Gen. Elec. Co., 78 Fed.Appx. 832, 834-35 (3d Cir. 2003). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court has “‘discretion to address evidence outside the complaint . . . .'” Id. at 835 (quoting Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 559 (3d Cir. 2002)). Thus, the court “‘may consider an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the document.'” Id. (quoting PBGC v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)).

         This Court declines to exercise its discretion to either convert this Rule 12(c) motion into a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment or to consider evidence outside of the complaint. A motion for summary judgment is not yet ripe, as both parties are still vigorously pursuing discovery. It would be imprudent, and possibly prejudicial to the parties, to convert this motion without either party briefing on this issue. Moreover, this Court may not consider the new allegations presented in the King Certification as (1) no documents have been attached and (2) there is no indication that the documents are “undisputedly authentic.” As a result, this Court will confine its analysis to the allegations disclosed in the pleadings.

         D. Section 1983 and NJCRA Claims Against Chief Codispoti in ...

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