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Murphy v. Middlesex County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 17, 2019

ALAN MURPHY, as Administrator of the Estate of Arthur J. Murphy, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
MIDDLESEX COUNTY et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          FREDA L. WOLFSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Alan Murphy ("Plaintiff), is the administrator of the estate of decedent, Arthur J. Murphy ("Decedent"), who died after an altercation with staff at the Middlesex County Adult Correctional Center on November 26, 2013.[1]Presently before the Court is a motion by defendants Andrew C. Carey ("Carey"), Michael Daniewicz ("Daniewicz"), George Trillhaase ("Trillhaase"), and Paul Miller ("Miller"), each employees of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office ("MCPO"), (collectively, "the MCPO Defendants"), to dismiss the claims asserted against them in Plaintiffs Third Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 99.) Plaintiff has opposed the motion, (ECF No. 105), and the MCPO Defendants have filed a reply brief, (ECF No. 108). Additionally, defendant Sheree Pitchford ("Pitchford"), [2] who was at all relevant times also an MCPO employee, has requested to join the MCPO Defendants' motion on the same bases asserted by them. (ECF No. 112.) Having considered the parties' submissions, and for the following reasons, Pitchford is permitted to join in the arguments advanced by the MCPO Defendants' motion and the motions to dismiss are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Underlying Circumstances

         In late November 2013, Decedent was homeless and sought shelter in an abandoned building in Edison, New Jersey. (3d Am. Compl., ECF No. 80 ¶¶ 26-29.) Officers from the Edison Township Police Department removed Decedent from the building and located a shelter for him to spend the night. (Id. ¶¶ 26-29, 38.) When Decedent declined transport to the shelter, the officers charged him with criminal trespass under New Jersey Statutes Annotated § ("N.J.S.A.") 2C:18-3(a) and took him to the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center ("MCACC"). (Id. ¶¶ 38 & 40.)

         Upon arriving at MCACC, Decedent answered general intake questions but refused to be fingerprinted. (Id. ¶ 42.) In response to Decedent's refusal, he was taken to a small "change-out room," where there were no cameras or video surveillance, to undergo a strip search. (Id. ¶¶ 43-44.) Seven corrections officers congregated in the room to observe Decedent's strip search. (Id. ¶ 45.) An altercation ensued when Decedent "clenched his fists," and up to nine corrections officers used force to subdue him. (Id. ¶¶ 46-48.) Following the altercation, Decedent was unresponsive, with blood flowing from his mouth, and he subsequently died. (Id. ¶¶ 48-52.)

         The MCPO subsequently undertook an internal-affairs investigation of Decedent's death. (Id. ¶¶ 57-61.) Defendant Daniewicz, a sergeant in the MCPO, was the investigator assigned to the case. (Id. ¶¶ 21, 64.) Plaintiff alleges that Daniewicz recommended that the investigation be closed and "did not recommend or require any other disposition, including 'Refer to Grand Jury.'" (Id.) Defendants Trillhaase and Miller were also sergeants with the MCPO and were Daniewicz's immediate and second-level supervisors, respectively. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23, 65-66.) Plaintiff alleges that they concurred with Daniewicz's recommendation to close the investigation and did not recommend any other disposition. (Id.) Defendant Pitchford was then an MCPO assistant prosecutor and acted as the "AP Supervisor" for the investigation into Decedent's death. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 67.) Plaintiff alleges that she also concurred with the decision to close the investigation and also did not recommend any other disposition. (Id.) Defendant Carey was then the Middlesex County Prosecutor, and Plaintiff alleges that he had final policy and oversight authority for internal-affairs investigations generally and for the investigation of Decedent's death specifically. (Id. ¶¶ 16-18, 62-63.)

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff commenced this action on September 25, 2015, filing a complaint against Middlesex County, the warden of MCACC, and the corrections and police officers involved in the incident, all in both their individual and official capacities. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) The Complaint alleged claims against the police officers for false arrest and malicious prosecution (Counts I & II), against the corrections officers for due process violations, excessive force, conspiracy, and assault and battery (Counts III, IV, V, and VI), against Middlesex County and Warden Edmund Cicchi for supervisory and municipal liability (Count VII), and against all defendants for wrongful death (Count VIII). (See ECF No. 1.)

         In September 2016, Plaintiff moved for leave to file an amended complaint, which would add the MCPO as a defendant to the claims for conspiracy (Count V), supervisory liability (Count VII), and wrongful death (Count VIII). (ECF No. 33.) Middlesex County opposed the amendment on the basis that it would be futile, arguing that the proposed amended complaint failed to adequately plead a claim against the MCPO and that the MCPO was shielded by prosecutorial immunity. (ECF No. 34.) On April 13, 2017, Magistrate Judge Tonianne J. Bongiovonni issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order considering these arguments and granting Plaintiffs motion to amend. (ECF Nos. 37 & 38.)

         The MCPO then filed a motion to dismiss the First Amended Complaint for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 48.) It argued, among other points, that it was shielded by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity and that it could not be considered a person subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Br. in Supp., ECF No. 48-1.) This Court rejected the MCPO's sovereign-immunity argument but dismissed the claims against it upon finding that it was not acting as a person for § 1983 purposes. (Op. (Dec. 12, 2017), ECF No. 61, at 6-16.) The Court granted Plaintiff leave to again amend the complaint "to assert claims against the MCPO for injunctive relief and/or against the MCPO prosecutor(s) in his or her personal capacity." (Id. at 16; Order, ECF No. 62.)

         Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, which added Carey, Daniewicz, and John Doe MCPO supervisors, all in their individual capacities, [3] as defendants to the conspiracy claim (Count V), alleging that they "conspired to cover-up, not fully investigate and/or violated mandatory investigatory protocol to ensure those involved would not be disciplined." (2d Am. Compl., ECF No. 65-1 ¶ 97.) Plaintiff urged that New Jersey Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2006-5 ("Directive 2006-5") required the issue to be presented to a grand jury unless the Division of Criminal Justice approved a finding that the undisputed facts showed the use of force was justifiable. (Id. ¶¶ 59-61.) Despite this, Plaintiff alleged that Carey, Daniewicz, and the Doe MCPO supervisors closed the file, without review by either a grand jury or the Division of Criminal Justice, "for the purpose of shielding the officers involved from exposure to discipline and/or criminal liability" and as part of a cover up to shield the officers directly involved. (Id. ¶¶ 62-67, 109-112.)

         The Second Amended Complaint also added Carey as a defendant to the supervisory-liability claim (Count VII), alleging that he repeatedly violated, or permitted to be violated, required investigative protocol, thereby creating an environment of acquiescence to use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and where officers "operated without fear of discipline." (Id. ¶¶ 123-127.) The Second Amended Complaint made clear that Carey, Daniewicz, and the MCPO supervisor defendants were not defendants to the wrongful-death claim (Count VIII). (Id., Count VIII.) Plaintiff subsequently filed the Third Amended Complaint, on consent of all parties, which primarily identified the previously unidentified MCPO supervisor defendants as Trillhaase, Miller, and Pitchford. (See ECF Nos. 78 & 80.) Thus, the claims presently asserted against the moving defendants are Count V, for conspiracy, which is asserted against all the MCPO Defendants, as well as the corrections-officer defendants, and Count VII, for supervisory and municipal liability, which is asserted against Carey, as well as Middlesex County and Warden Cicchi. (See ECF No. 80.)

         C. The Instant Motion

         Presently before the Court is a motion by the MCPO Defendants to dismiss the Third Amended Complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). (ECF No. 99.) They argue that Plaintiffs claims against them are barred by prosecutorial, quasi-judicial, and qualified immunity. (Br. in Supp., ECF No. 99-1, at 13-26.) They further contend that Plaintiff lacks standing to assert claims against them and that he has failed to adequately plead constitutional claims. (Id. at 26-37.) Plaintiff has opposed the motion, (ECF No. 105), and the MCPO Defendants have replied, (ECF No. 108). Pitchford subsequently filed a letter seeking to join in the pending motion. (ECF No. 112). As the factual and legal issues seem to be the same, the Court will treat all arguments as applying equally to Pitchford.[4]

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard for Dismissal Under Rule 12(b)(1)

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) permits the Court to dismiss a proceeding for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). This includes cases where Eleventh Amendment immunity bars the plaintiffs claims, as the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted that "the Eleventh Amendment is a jurisdictional bar which deprives federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction." Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Corp.,77 F.3d ...


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