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Brown v. Elmwood Park Police Dept.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 18, 2019

GILES BROWN, Plaintiff,
ELMWOOD PARK POLICE DEPT., et al., Defendants.


          Hon. Susan D. Wigenton, United States District Judge.


         1. On or about April 8, 2019, Plaintiff, Giles Brown, a convicted state prisoner confined in South Woods State Prison, filed a civil complaint in which he seeks to raise claims against several police officers and the Elmwood Park Police Department based on alleged violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (ECF No. 1). Plaintiff also filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis. (Document 1 attached to ECF No. 1). Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion seeking the appointment of counsel. (ECF No. 2).

         2. As Plaintiff has shown that he is entitled to in forma pauperis status, Plaintiff's application (Document 1 attached to ECF No. 1) shall be granted. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a).

         3. Because Plaintiff will be granted in forma pauperis status, and because Plaintiff is a state prisoner, this Court is required to screen his complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A. Pursuant to these statutes, this Court must sua sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. “The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) [or § 1915A] is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).” Schreane v. Seana, 506 Fed.Appx. 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)).

         4. In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a district court is “required to accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draw all inferences in the facts alleged in the light most favorable to the [Plaintiff].” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 228 (3d Cir. 2008). “[A] complaint attacked by a . . . motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations.” Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). However, the Plaintiff's “obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). A court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan, 478 U.S. at 286. Instead, assuming the factual allegations in the complaint are true, those “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         5. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for misconduct alleged.” Id. “Determining whether the allegations in a complaint are plausible is a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Moreover, while pro se pleadings are liberally construed, “pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.” Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013) (citation omitted) (emphasis added).

         6. In his complaint, Plaintiff essentially asserts that two officers of the Elmwood Park Police Department, Detectives Kochis and Woods, planted drugs upon him and several others, falsely arrested him based on that evidence, falsely imprisoned him in turn, and then engaged in malicious prosecution of a drug related charge. (ECF No. 1 at 2-3). Plaintiff also asserts that they testified falsely at an evidentiary hearing during his prosecution. In addition to Detectives Kochis and Woods, Plaintiff also names as Defendants the Elmwood Park Police Department and the Chief of that Department. (Id. at 1-2). Plaintiff, however, pleads no facts about actions taken by the chief or how any Department policy impugned his rights.

         7. Turning first to the police department, a New Jersey police department

is not an independent entity with the capacity to sue and be sued, but only “an executive and enforcement function of municipal government.” N.J.S.A. 40A:14-118. The case law under Section 1983 uniformly holds that the proper defendant is therefore the municipality itself, not the police department. See Jackson v. City of Erie Pol[.] Dep't, 570 Fed.Appx. 112, 114 (3d Cir. 2014) (per curiam; not precedential) (“We further agree with the District Court that the police department was not a proper party to this action. Although local government units may constitute ‘persons' against whom suit may be lodged under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a city police department is a governmental sub-unit that is not distinct from the municipality of which it is a part.”) (citation omitted)[;] [s]ee also Boneberger v. Plymouth Twp., 132 F.3d 20, 25 n. 4 (3d Cir. 1997) ([c]ourt[s] “treat[] the municipality and its police department as a single entity for purposes of section 1983 liability”); Michaels v. State of New Jersey, 955 F.Supp. 315, 329 n. 1 (D.N.J. 1996).

Rivera v. Zwiegle, No. 13-3024, 2014 WL 6991954, at *3 (D.N.J. Dec. 9, 2014). Plaintiff's claims against the police department are therefore dismissed.

         8. Although Plaintiff names the chief of the Elmwood Park Police as a Defendant in this matter, Plaintiff fails to plead any personal involvement by the chief in the alleged wrongs. Under § 1983, a claim for supervisory liability may not be premised solely on a respondeat superior theory of liability. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676; see also Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207-08 (3d Cir. 1988). A “defendant in a civil rights action must [instead] have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs” and a plaintiff must therefore plead a supervisory defendant's involvement in the alleged violation through means other than vicarious liability. Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207-08. Generally, this requires the plaintiff to show each supervisor's participation by pleading either that the supervisor's “establishment of policies, practices or customs . . . directly caused the constitutional violation[, ] personal liability based on the supervisor participating in the violation of [the p]laintiff's right, [that the supervisor] direct[ed] others to violate [the p]laintiff's rights, or [that the supervisor had actual] knowledge of and acquiesc[ed] to a subordinate's conduct.” Doe v. New Jersey Dep't of Corr., No. 14-5284, 2015 WL 3448233, at *9 (D.N.J. May 29, 2015) (quoting Barkes v. First Corr. Med., Inc., 766 F.3d 307, 316-20 (3d Cir. 2014), rev'd on other grounds, 135 S.Ct. 2042 (2015)); see also Tenon v. Dreibelbis, 606 Fed.Appx. 681, 688 (3d Cir. 2015) (§ 1983 Plaintiff pleading supervisory liability must establish defendant's “participation [in the alleged wrong], or actual knowledge and acquiescence, to be liable”). As Plaintiff pleads no actual involvement by the chief, he has failed to plead a viable supervisory liability claim against him, and Plaintiff's claims against the chief are therefore dismissed without prejudice.

         9. As to the remaining Defendants, Kochis and Woods, Plaintiff seeks to raise claims against them in both their individual and official capacity. A suit against a state or county official in their official capacity “represent[s] only another way of pleading an action against the entity of which an officer is an agent, ” in this case the municipality of Elmwood Park which operates the Elmwood Park police. See, e.g., Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n. 55 (1978); Grohs v. Yatauro, 984 F.Supp.2d 273, 280-81 (D.N.J. 2013). A claim against a municipality, however, can only be made out by showing that the constitutional violations alleged occurred because of a policy, practice, or custom put into place by the municipality itself. Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. Plaintiff has alleged no such policy, practice, or custom, and thus his official capacity claims against Kochis and Woods must be dismissed without prejudice.

         10. Turning to Plaintiff's individual capacity claims against Kochis and Woods, Plaintiff fails to state a claim for malicious prosecution. To plead a viable claim ...

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