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Turzanski v. County of Burlington

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 7, 2018

COUNTY OF BURLINGTON, et al., Defendants.




         This matter comes before the Court by way of Plaintiff Sean Turzanski's complaint against Defendants County of Burlington, Lawrence Artis, and Sergeant Nunn, asserting violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 42). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will GRANT IN PART, Defendants' motion.


         At all times relevant to the allegations in the complaint, Plaintiff was a pre-trial detainee at the Burlington County Correctional Facility. On or about December 9, 2013, the New Jersey Superior Court had committed Plaintiff to pretrial detention as he could not make bail after receiving charges of theft and robbery.

         Shortly thereafter, on or about December 24, 2013, Plaintiff fought with two inmates, although the parties dispute who initiated the fight. After a disciplinary hearing, Plaintiff received a sanction of fifteen days in administrative segregation from December 24, 2013, until January 7, 2014. During that time period, Plaintiff was able to observe another inmate, Robert Taylor.[1]Plaintiff contends that he witnessed Mr. Taylor's health decline over a No. of days until Mr. Taylor laid on the floor in blood, feces, and urine, with discolored extremities. According to Plaintiff, jail staff ignored his and Mr. Taylor's cries for help, as well as the unbearable smell, and threw away Mr. Taylor's meals because Mr. Taylor could not get off the floor to eat them. It was not until December 30, 2013, that jail staff checked on Mr. Taylor and attempted to resuscitate him but found that he had been dead for a significant period of time.

         Plaintiff then mailed letters to the media and other persons detailing the events and conditions leading to Mr. Taylor's death, but testified that only one letter had reached its intended recipient, the prosecutor's office. On January 26, 2014, Plaintiff gave another letter to a soon to be released inmate, Edward Forchion, who forwarded the letter to various news and media outlets.

         Shortly thereafter, on January 29, 2014, Plaintiff encountered Defendant Lawrence Artis in the jail's recreational area. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Artis told him to “keep [his] fucking mouth shut” and that Plaintiff did not “know what [he] saw, ” ostensibly referring to Mr. Taylor. (ECF No. 42-4, at 13, 70:16-18). Defendant Artis then allegedly had officers “put [Plaintiff] against the wall, told [Plaintiff] to shut the fuck up, handcuffed and dragged [him] back to” the segregation unit. (ECF No. 42-4, at 13, 70:20-24).

         Jail officials then charged Plaintiff with disrupting or interfering with the security of a correctional facility and conducted a disciplinary hearing on January 31, 2014. Officials found Plaintiff guilty and sanctioned him to fifteen days in administrative segregation from January 29, 2014, until February 12, 2014. According to Plaintiff, on an unknown date during that period, an unidentified inmate assaulted him, resulting in permanent injuries to his right pectoral tendon.

         Plaintiff filed suit against three named Defendants, the County of Burlington, former warden Lawrence Artis, and “Sergeant Nunn, ” in their official and individual capacities. Plaintiff's complaint brings a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for retaliation under the First Amendment (Count One) and a § 1983 claim for unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment and a denial of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment (collectively Count Two).


         A court should grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 656-57 (2014). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, a court must construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Cotton, 572 U.S. at 657. The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact remains. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). “[W]ith respect to an issue on which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof, ” the moving party may discharge its burden “by ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 325.

         If the moving party meets its threshold burden, the opposing party must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue as to a material fact for trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) (setting forth types of evidence that may show that genuine issues of material fact exist). The non-moving party must at least present probative evidence from which the jury might return a verdict in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257. Where the non-moving party fails to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, ” the movant is entitled to summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “[U]nsupported allegations . . . and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment.” Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Scheidemantle v. Slippery Rock Univ. State Sys. of Higher Educ., 470 F.3d 535, 538 (3d Cir. 2006) (“To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party needs to show specific facts such that a reasonable jury could find in that party's favor, thereby establishing a genuine issue of fact for trial.”).


         A. Municipal Liability Under § 1983

         The County of Burlington argues that summary judgment is appropriate because Plaintiff has failed to establish his claim against a local government entity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To succeed on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege two things: first, a violation of a right under the Constitution, and second, that a “person” acting under color of state law committed the violation. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Com. of Pa., 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d. Cir. 1994)). The Supreme Court has established that § 1983's definition of “person” includes municipalities and other local government entities. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).

         A plaintiff may not, however, hold a local government unit “liable for the unconstitutional acts of its employees on a theory of respondeat superior.” Thomas v. Cumberland Cty., 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014). To hold such an entity liable under § 1983, plaintiffs must demonstrate that a local government unit adopted a policy or custom and that such policy or custom had been “the moving force” behind the deprivation of their constitutional rights. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 694.

         Municipal policy generally involves a “statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by [a local governing] body's officers.” Id. at 690. A municipal custom, although lacking the formal approval of a policy, refers to those official practices which are “so permanent and well settled as to constitute . . . the force of law.” Id. at 691.

         Under certain circumstances, a municipality's failure to properly train its employees and officers can amount to a “custom” under § 1983. See City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989). When a plaintiff alleges that a policy “concerns a failure to train or supervise municipal employees, liability under section 1983 requires a showing that the failure amounts to ‘deliberate indifference' to the rights of persons with whom those employees will come into contact.” Thomas, 749 F.3d at 222 (quoting Carter v. City of Phila., 181 F.3d 339, 357 (3d Cir. 1999)). “A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is ‘ordinarily necessary' to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train.” Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 62 (2011) (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cty., Okl. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 409 (1997)).

         The “first inquiry in any case alleging municipal liability under § 1983 is . . . whether there is a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation.” Canton, 489 U.S. at 385. The County of Burlington may satisfy its burden for summary judgment by showing “that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Assuming arguendo that Plaintiff has properly alleged a violation of a constitutional right, he has failed to show that the County is a “person” acting under color of state law and committed that violation. See West, 487 U.S. at 48.

         Plaintiff alleges that a local government unit “committed” a violation but fails to show that the County of Burlington's policies or customs resulted in the alleged violation. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. In fact, Plaintiff fails to address Defendants' arguments on this issue anywhere in their opposition. (ECF No. 48). Plaintiff fails to identify any specific county policies or customs that amount to deliberate indifference to the county's inhabitants. See Carswell v. Borough ofHomestead,381 F.3d 235, 244 (3d Cir. 2004). Nor does Plaintiff produce any evidence to demonstrate a pattern of underlying constitutional violations. In fact, the only mention of a potential policy or custom anywhere in Plaintiffs opposition or complaint is that a policy required Defendant Nunn to tour the correctional facility three times per day which lacks any causal link to any of the alleged constitutional ...

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