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Estate of Roman v. City of Newark

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

January 29, 2019

CITY OF NEWARK; CITY OF NEWARK POLICE DEPARTMENT; ANTHONY CAMPOS, Chief of Police; RODGER C. MENDES; ALBANO FERREIRA; ONOFRE H. CABEZAS; JOSEPH CUETO; FNU RESSUREICAO; FNU GOLPE; JOYCE HILL, Individually and in their capacity as police officers; JOHN DOES 1-20, as fictitious names for presently unknown agents member commissioners and chiefs *(Amended pursuant to Clerk's Order)

          Argued June 12, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil Action No. 2-16-cv-01110) District Judge: Honorable Susan D. Wigenton

          Justin D. Santagata (Argued) Kaufman Semeraro & Leibman Counsel for Appellant

          Kenyatta K. Stewart, Acting Corporation Counsel Wilson D. Antoine (Argued) Counsel for Appellees

          Before: AMBRO, JORDAN, and HARDIMAN, Circuit Judges


          AMBRO, Circuit Judge

         Newark police officers forcibly entered and searched the apartment of Adriano Roman's girlfriend. App. at 386, 391, 459, 486. They arrested Roman, who was present in the apartment, after they found drugs in a common area that was shared by multiple tenants. Id. at 399, 479. Though he was imprisoned for over six months and indicted for various drug offenses, the New Jersey Superior Court found the search to be unlawful and the charges were dropped.

         Roman now brings claims against the City of Newark (which includes its Police Department) and various police officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (which gives a federal remedy against state officials who, acting under color of state law, deprive "any citizen of the United States . . . of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the [U.S.] Constitution and laws") and New Jersey tort law. He alleges the City had a pattern or practice of constitutional violations and failed to train, supervise, and discipline its officers. He also pleads an unlawful search claim against the officers and contends they are liable for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The District Court dismissed all of the claims because they were inadequately pled. It also held the City did not have an ongoing practice of unconstitutional searches and arrests.

         While most of Roman's claims do not withstand dismissal, his § 1983 claims against the City do. He has adequately alleged that its Police Department had a custom of warrantless searches and false arrests. He also sufficiently pled that the Department failed to train, supervise, and discipline its officers, specifically with respect to "the requirements of [the] Fourth Amendment and related law." App. at 160. Because Roman has stated a plausible claim against the City, we vacate and remand the District Court's holding on municipal liability. We affirm in all other respects.

         I. Background [1]

         On May 2, 2014, Roman and his girlfriend Tiffany Reyes were watching a movie in her apartment's bedroom. App. at 386, 389, 395. Unbeknownst to them, four Newark police officers had set up surveillance outside of her building because of complaints about narcotics activity. Id. at 338. The officers heard an argument between a man and a woman, id. at 340-42, and decided to enter Reyes' apartment without a warrant, id. at 491.

         After they stepped inside the building, they discovered that the front door of the apartment was locked. They also noticed Melissa Isaksem, Reyes' friend, walking inside the building. Id. at 417-20. They stopped and questioned her. Id. at 417, 419. When she told them she was visiting Reyes, id. at 419, they ordered her to knock on the apartment door for them and threatened to arrest her if she did not comply, id. at 419-20. Isaksem led them to the apartment and stood directly in front of the peephole. Id. at 421. The police stood to her left, presumably out of the peephole's range. Id. An officer knocked on her behalf. Id. Reyes asked who was at the door, and Isaksem announced her presence. Id.

         Reyes opened the door, expecting to see only Isaksem. Id. at 386, 400, 501. Instead, several officers rushed inside. Id. at 387, 400, 501. They handcuffed Roman, Reyes, and Isaksem, then demanded Roman "call someone to bring drugs to the [apartment]." Am. Compl. ¶ 30 (internal quotation marks omitted). If he did, they assured him they would "'make a deal' and 'let him go.'" Id. Roman refused the officers' demands, id. ¶ 33, and the police searched the apartment. Eventually they found drugs in a common-area space that was shared by multiple tenants and located in the back of the apartment. App. at 399, 479. After seizing the contraband, they yelled, "[W]e got you, motherfucker[;] . . . you're fucked now." Id. at 427. Officer Rodger Mendes walked back to Roman, "flipped him . . . on[]to his stomach . . ., put his knee in his neck[, ] and . . . said he was going to get raped [in prison]." Id. at 428. Another officer informed Roman's father, who lived next door and observed parts of the search, that his son "would go away for a long time." Id. at 454.

         Roman was arrested and imprisoned on the same night. The officers filed a criminal complaint against him for possession of, as well as intent to distribute, heroin and cocaine. A New Jersey grand jury returned a six-count indictment against him for the same offenses.

         In response, Roman moved to suppress the evidence seized from the apartment. He argued the search was invalid under the Fourth Amendment because the contraband was not in plain view and thus a warrant was needed. The New Jersey Superior Court agreed. It concluded the plain-view exception did not apply and suppressed the contraband.

         The State of New Jersey did not appeal the ruling and instead moved to dismiss the case. The Superior Court granted its motion in December 2014 and issued a final judgment of dismissal. Roman was released from prison during the same month.

         Approximately a year later, Roman brought § 1983 and state-law tort claims against the City of Newark and various police officers (for simplicity, the City and the officers are jointly referred to as the "Defendants"). Among other things, he alleged the City had a custom or policy of unconstitutional searches, inadequate training, and poor supervision and discipline.[2] He also claimed the officers unlawfully searched his apartment and were liable for the torts of unlawful imprisonment and malicious prosecution.[3]

         The Defendants responded with a motion to dismiss. The District Court sided with them, dismissing the complaint in its entirety. It first addressed Roman's claim against the City and concluded the complaint "fail[ed] to plead . . . a custom or policy" of unlawful searches and a failure to train or supervise officers. Roman v. City of Newark, Civil Action No. 16-1110-SDW-LDW, 2017 WL 436251, at *4 (D.N.J. Jan. 30, 2017). Although the complaint alleged "a pattern or practice of constitutional violations in areas including stop[] and arrest practices, use of force, and theft by officers," the Court did not consider that sufficient to state a claim. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Compl. ¶ 59). Instead, it viewed those practices as predating Roman's arrest and observed that "the imposition of a [f]ederal [m]onitor indicate[d] [the City's] attempts to change any wrongful policies or practices." Id.

         The Court also held the unlawful search claim was inadequately pled, as Roman did not "explain which [Defendant(s)] committed the allegedly wrongful acts" during the search and arrest. Id. Turning to the false imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims, it construed them as state-law claims and noted that plaintiffs must comply with the New Jersey Tort Claims Act before bringing them against public entities. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 59:8-1 et seq. Because the "[c]omplaint nowhere allege[d]" Roman complied with the Act's procedures, the Court dismissed those claims as well. Roman, 2017 WL 436251, at *6.

         The Court's dismissal was without prejudice, and it granted Roman leave to amend. He did so by omitting his tort claims and retaining his other allegations in almost identical form. The Court dismissed his amended complaint and reaffirmed its ruling on reconsideration. This appeal followed.[4]

         II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

         The District Court had federal-question and supplemental jurisdiction per 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367(a), respectively, and we have jurisdiction over its final orders under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

         We review de novo its dismissal of a complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008). When conducting our review, "we accept all factual allegations as true [and] construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, "we are not compelled to accept unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences . . . or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation[.]" Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted) (internal citation omitted).

         III. Discussion

         A. Roman sufficiently pled a municipal liability claim against Newark.

         As noted, Roman alleges the City is liable under § 1983 because it "engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations," "failed to properly train and/or supervise" its police force, and "failed to properly and adequately control and discipline" its police officers.[5] Am. Compl. ¶¶ 68, 73-74. Before discussing the merits of his claims, Roman directs our attention to the types of documents we may consider on a motion to dismiss. He contends we may review three sources that were provided to the District Court: an article published in the Newark Star Ledger (the "Star Ledger article"), a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office (the "press release"), and a consent decree between the United States and the City of Newark (the "consent decree"). The Star Ledger article and press release were referenced in the amended complaint, see id. ¶¶ 68-69 (including hyperlinks to both), but the consent decree was attached to the Defendants' motion to dismiss, see App. at 129. Roman also asks us to look at one other document: the Department of Justice's Report on the investigation of the Newark Police Department (the "DOJ Report"). Although he acknowledges the DOJ Report was never provided to the District Court, he now claims it is integral to the pleadings.

         Though the Defendants dispute that we may consider the DOJ Report, they add that we also cannot consider the consent decree because "no relevant provisions of [it] . . . were ever cited . . . to the District Court" and it is inadmissible settlement material. Defendants' Br. at 42. They assert as well, without any citation to the record, that Roman may not rely on the decree because he asked the District Court to confine its analysis to the pleadings.

         We disagree with the Defendants' view of the consent decree. Although we examine the "complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, [and] matters of public record," Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010), we can also consider documents "that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss," Pension Benefits Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993), if they are "undisputedly authentic" and "the [plaintiff's] claims are based [on them]," Mayer, 605 F.3d at 230. That holding extends to settlement material because plaintiffs "need not provide admissible proof at th[e] [motion-to-dismiss] stage." In re OSG Sec. Litig., 12 F.Supp.3d 619, 622 (S.D.N.Y. 2014); see also In re MyFord Touch Consumer Litig., 46 F.Supp.3d 936, 961 n.5 (N.D. Cal. 2014) (same). Moreover, the Supreme Court has been clear about the scope of our review, stating we "must consider the complaint in its entirety, as well as other sources [we] ordinarily examine when ruling on . . . motions to dismiss, in particular, documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice." Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007) (emphasis added).

          Here, although the consent decree was not attached to Roman's amended complaint, we are free to review its contents for three reasons.[6] First, the Defendants attached the decree to their motion to dismiss and affirmed that it is "capable of judicial notice" as an indisputably authentic government document. App. at 129. Second, contrary to the dissent's assertion, the Defendants themselves argued (and correctly) before the District Court that Roman's claims were based on the consent decree. Compare Dissenting Op. at 5 ("What is crucial is whether Roman's complaint was 'based' on the consent decree."), with App. at 129 (filing from Defendants characterizing the consent decree as "integral to the Complaint"). Third, the amended complaint cited, and the District Court discussed, the DOJ investigation and federal monitor that eventually led to the consent decree. See Roman, 2017 WL 436251, at *4; see also Am. Compl. ¶¶ 68-71. Thus it was especially important for the Court to have considered the decree as well, given that it provides essential context to Roman's claims. That it did not was an abuse of discretion.

         That said, we may not consider the DOJ Report at this stage because it was not provided to the District Court in the first instance by any party. Nor is it apparent that the Court considered it sua sponte. See United States ex rel. Wilkins v. United Health Grp., Inc., 659 F.3d 295, 302 (3d Cir. 2011) ("Though we do not doubt the authenticity of these documents, nevertheless we will not consider them because the parties did not present them to the District Court and we do not find any indication in the record that the Court considered them on its own initiative."). Hence it cannot carry any weight in our analysis.

         Turning to the amended complaint, Roman claims the City is liable for his unlawful search because it "failed to train its officers in the use of search and seizure techniques, probable cause, and/or methods to properly obtain a search warrant." Am. Compl. ¶ 95. He alleges the Newark Police Department "engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations" and asserts the Department of Justice appointed a federal monitor to oversee the reforms to which the City consented. Id. ¶ 68. His allegations also touch on the City's failure to "control and discipline" its police force, id. ¶ 74, and failure to "investigate . . . instances of . . . police misconduct," id. ¶ 81. He characterizes the City's practices in these areas as "tantamount to a[n] [unconstitutional] custom and/or policy," id. ¶ 82, thus indicating its "deliberate indifference to [its citizens' constitutional] rights," id. ¶ 83.

         The Defendants respond that Roman has failed to allege a municipal liability claim, as no part of the Star Ledger article, press release, or consent decree references the types of constitutional violations pled in the amended complaint. They also contend the City had no notice "of any pattern of constitutional violations with respect to forced entry and searches of homes." Defendants' Br. at 50.

         To plead a municipal liability claim, a plaintiff must allege that "a [local] government's policy or custom . . . inflict[ed] the injury" in question. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). "Policy is made when a decisionmaker possess[ing] final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action issues an official proclamation, policy, or edict." Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Custom, on the other hand, can be proven by showing that a given course of conduct, although not specifically endorsed or authorized by law, is so well-settled and permanent as virtually to constitute law." Bielevicz v. Dubinon, 915 F.2d 845, 850 (3d Cir. 1990) (Becker, J.); see also Brown v. Muhlenberg Twp., 269 F.3d 205, 215 (3d Cir. 2001) ("A custom . . . must have the force of law by virtue of the persistent practices of state [or municipal] officials." (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Although a policy or custom is necessary to plead a municipal claim, it is not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. A plaintiff must also allege that the policy or custom was the "proximate cause" of his injuries. See Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1213 (3d Cir. 1996). He may do so by demonstrating an "affirmative link" between the policy or custom and the particular constitutional violation he alleges. Bielevicz, 915 F.2d at 850 (internal quotation marks omitted). This is done for a custom if Roman demonstrates that Newark had knowledge of "similar unlawful conduct in the past, . . . failed to take precautions against future violations, and that [its] failure, at least in part, led to [his] injury." Id. at 851. Despite these requirements, Roman does not need to identify a responsible decisionmaker in his pleadings. See id. at 850. Nor is he required to prove that the custom had the City's formal approval. See Anela v. City of Wildwood, 790 F.2d 1063, 1067 (3d Cir. 1986).

         The pleading requirements are different for failure-to-train claims because a plaintiff need not allege an unconstitutional policy. See Reitz v. County of Bucks, 125 F.3d 139, 145 (3d Cir. 1997) ("[I]n the absence of an unconstitutional policy, a municipality's failure to properly train its employees and officers can create an actionable violation . . . under § 1983."). Instead, he must demonstrate that a city's failure to train its employees "reflects a deliberate or conscious choice." Brown, 269 F.3d at 215 (internal quotation marks omitted). For claims involving police officers, the Supreme Court has held that the failure to train "serve[s] as [a] basis for § 1983 liability only where [it] . . . amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact." City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989) (footnote omitted). A plaintiff sufficiently pleads deliberate indifference by showing that "(1) municipal policymakers know that employees will confront a particular situation[, ] (2) the situation involves a difficult choice or a history of employees mishandling[, ] and (3) the wrong choice by an employee will frequently cause deprivation of constitutional rights." Doe v. Luzerne County, 660 F.3d 169, 180 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Carter v. City of Philadelphia, 181 F.3d 339, 357 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         In view of this case law, Roman has not pled a municipal policy, as his amended complaint fails to refer to "an official proclamation, policy, or [an] edict." Andrews, 895 F.2d at 1480. However, he has sufficiently alleged a custom of warrantless or nonconsensual searches. He has also adequately pled that the City failed to train, supervise, and discipline its police officers.[7]

         We start with Roman's allegations on municipal custom. He asserts the City had "a pattern or practice of constitutional violations in areas including . . . arrest practices." App. at 137. He further contends it had notice of this practice, as it received "complaints against officers accused of . . . conducting improper searches and false arrests." Id. at 134. The amended complaint, along with the press release and Star Ledger article, note that Newark was under the supervision of a federal monitor after Roman's arrest. Am. Compl. ΒΆ 68; App. at 133, 137. According to the press release, ...

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