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Jacobs v. Cumberland County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 31, 2019

RAHEEM JACOBS, Plaintiff,
v.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          Surinder K. Aggarwal The Law Offices of Surinder K. Aggarwal Counsel for Plaintiff Raheem Jacobs

          A. Michael Barker, Greg Paul DiLorenzo, and Vanessa Elain James Barker, Gelfand, James & Sarvas, P.C. Counsel for Defendant Michael Williams

          Shanna McCann Chance & McCann LLC Counsel for Defendants Neal Armstrong (i/p/a Neil Armstrong), Michael Anderson, Emanual Marrero (i/p/a Emanual Morrero), and Manual Velazquez (i/p/a Manual Velesquez)

          Daniel Edward Rybeck and Lilia Londar Weir & Partners LLP Counsel for Defendants Cumberland County and Warden Robert Balicki

          OPINION

          HON. JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This civil rights matter stems from the purported use of excessive force against the plaintiff, Raheem Jacobs, by the corrections officers who removed him from Cumberland County Jail's (“CCJ's”) “C” dorm on the morning of February 25, 2015. Presently before the Court are three separate motions for summary judgment filed by defendants: (1) Michael Williams (at DE 89), a CCJ corrections officer (“CO”) who was captured on video delivering three quick strikes to Jacobs as he was being handcuffed; (2) CCJ corrections officers Michael Anderson, Neil Armstrong, Emanual Marrero, and Manual Velazquez (the “Other CO Defendants”) (at DE 91), all four of whom were, in varying degrees, also involved in restraining and removing Jacobs on February 25th; and (3) CCJ's warden, Robert Balicki, and Cumberland County (the “Supervisory Defendants”) (at DE 90). Jacobs opposes all three motions. (DE 96.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court enter summary judgment in favor of the Supervisory Defendants on all claims against them. Williams' and the Other CO Defendants' respective motions, on the other hand, will be granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         On February 25, 2015, at approximately 8:35 a.m., Jacobs - who was then a pre-trial detainee - and another inmate also housed in “C” dorm, Bruce Hanby, got into a fistfight. (See, e.g., Jacobs' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“SUMF”) ¶¶ 2-3, DE 96-5; see also CCJ's Feb. 25, 2015 Surveillance Video, DE 91-20.) Jacobs and Hanby's respective accounts of that altercation differ. Hanby, by way of an April 13, 2018 written statement, indicated that he “beat [Jacobs'] ass. He was bleeding. [When I hit Jacobs in the face, y]ou heard the crack throughout the dorm. [Jacobs] was bleeding from the face. . . . I had him on the ground beating him. . . . I remember stomping [Jacobs] in the body with my feet when he was on the ground, hitting him in the chest, ribs, [and] back.” (DE 89-9.) Jacobs, on the other hand, testified that Hanby only managed to punch him in the lip two or three times before another inmate, Bill Matthews, broke the fight up. (See Jacobs' Mar 12, 2018 Dep. Tr. 28-29, DE 91-22.) Although the parties disagree on which of Jacobs' February 25th injuries are attributable to Hanby, specifically, it is undisputed that Jacobs did not walk away from that fight unscathed.

         Less than five minutes later, at 8:39 a.m., CCJ corrections officers entered “C” dorm to remove the two as-of-then-unidentified CCJ inmates who fought. (See DE 91-20.) The officers readily identified Hanby as one of the two assailants and removed him to CCJ's medical unit. Approximately fifteen minutes later, Officers Anderson, Armstrong, Williams, and Velazquez - but not Marrero - returned to “C” dorm to remove the other individual involved in the physical altercation, i.e., Jacobs. (See CCJ's Feb. 25, 2015 Surveillance Video, DE 91-18.) Officer Armstrong located Jacobs in the shower, observed that he had “several cuts in his upper [and] bottom lips as well as blood coming from his nose, ” and told him to return to his bed and get dressed. (See Armstrong's Feb. 25, 2015 Use of Force Report, DE 96-3 at Ex. L.)

         CCJ surveillance video shows Jacobs returning to his bunk at 9:02 a.m. (See DE 91-18.) The soundless video further shows that one minute later, at 9:03 a.m., Officer Armstrong approached Jacobs from behind as he was hunched over and sorting through various items on his bed. (Id.) Armstrong then proceeded to stand Jacobs upright and began handcuffing him from this standing position. Although there is substantial dispute between the parties as to what Jacobs and the corrections officers said to each other in the moments before Armstrong began restraining Jacobs, it does not appear from the video that Armstrong used undue force to get Jacobs to comply, nor does it appear that Jacobs was, in any way, actively resisting Armstrong's efforts to handcuff him. (Id.)

         The surveillance video clearly shows that in the next few seconds, as Armstrong was handcuffing Jacobs, and after both of Jacobs' arms were behind him, Officer Williams delivered two quick strikes to Jacobs' neck and head, at which point, Armstrong took Jacobs to the ground as Williams swung at Jacobs for a third time. (Id.) Williams delivered all three blows in less than one second. (Id.) The video of the incident indicates that Williams' attack on Jacobs was sudden and - as far as this Court is able to observe - wholly unexpected. (Id.) The video conclusively shows that Armstrong and Anderson were the only two COs in the immediate proximity of Williams as he hit Jacobs.[1] (Id.)

         Armstrong and Anderson then proceeded to restrain Jacobs on the ground as Williams loomed over all three of them. (Id.) The video does not completely capture Armstrong and Anderson's actions in the twenty-second period that Jacobs remained on “C” dorm's floor; it clearly shows only that the two officers were on top of him. (Id.) While it appears, based on the Court's review of the video, that neither of these officers, as Jacobs now claims, beat him on his head, kneed him, and punched him while he was on the ground (see Jacobs' Dep. Tr. 32, DE 91-22), the video is ultimately inconclusive on this point. (See DE 91-18.) The video, does, however, clearly refute Jacobs' assertion that “Officer Williams was [] kicking [Jacobs] in [his] back” as he lay on the ground. (See Jacobs' Dep. Tr. 32, DE 91-22.) The video next shows Armstrong and Anderson standing Jacobs back up and Armstrong then escorting Jacobs out of “C” dorm in handcuffs. (DE 91-18.) This entire sequence of events - beginning with Jacobs returning to his bunk and ending with Jacobs being escorted away in handcuffs - occurred in roughly thirty seconds. (See id.)

         Armstrong then walked Jacobs to CCJ's medical unit. This walk was captured on multiple other CCJ surveillance videos. (See CCJ's Feb. 25, 2015 Surveillance Video, DE 91-21.) All such video evidence shows Jacobs being escorted to CCJ's medical unit in handcuffs without further incident. (Id.) That said, it is undisputed that in the course of taking Jacobs to medical, Armstrong led Jacobs onto an elevator that did not have a surveillance camera. Jacobs claims that when he got to the elevator, otherwise unidentified corrections officers “slammed [his] face into [it]” and continued “beating [him] up furthermore.” (See Jacobs' Dep. Tr. 32, DE 91-22.) The record establishes that the only COs involved in escorting Jacobs on and off the elevator were Officers Armstrong and Marrero.

         Jacobs received treatment for his injuries at Inspira Medical Center in Vineland, New Jersey, on the same day of the incident. (See Inspira's Feb. 25, 2015 Final Report, DE 96-2 at Ex. C; accord Jacobs' SUMF ¶ 71, DE 96-5.) While there, Jacobs was formally diagnosed with “nasal fractures [] with mild deviation toward the right” and “facial and scalp swelling.” (DE 96-2 at Ex. C.) As alluded to above, it is unclear which of these injuries are attributable to Inmate Hanby and which were caused by Officer Williams and/or the Other CO Defendants.

         Whenever force is utilized, CCJ corrections officers are required to prepare and submit a use of force report (“UFR”) on the same day that any such incident occurs. (See Supervisory Defs.' SUMF ¶ 131, DE 90-1; accord Jacobs' SUMF Response, DE 96-6 at p. 46; Armstrong's Mar. 23, 2018 Dep. Tr. 61-62, DE 89-6.) In accordance with this mandate, Officers Anderson, Armstrong, Williams, and Velazquez all prepared separate UFRs regarding the force utilized against Jacobs on February 25, 2015.[2] (See Defs.' Feb. 25, 2015 UFRs, DE 96-3 at Ex. L.)

         Officer Armstrong's UFR states that when Jacobs returned to his bunk, “[Armstrong] told [Jacobs] to put his jumper on and turn around to be handcuffed. [Jacobs] was refusing to do so.” (Id.) Armstrong reported that he then “grabbed [Jacobs'] jumper by the collar and took him face down to the ground and handcuffed him.” (Id.) Williams' UFR indicates that “[Jacobs] took his time [getting ready] and was instructed again to gather his things. He refused and was grabbed by Armstrong to be cuffed. [Jacobs] struggled and was taken down, cuffed, and [removed].” (Id.) Anderson's report states that he “assisted in restraining [Jacobs] while he was on the ground with Officers Armstrong and [] Williams.” (Id.) Velazquez's UFR states that Jacobs “stood up in an aggressive manner [as he was collecting his things and] started towards [Armstrong] who proceeded to take him to [the] ground and handcuff him from behind.” (Id.) Notably, not one of these UFRs indicates that Williams struck Jacobs.

         In accordance with CCJ's standard practice, defendants' February 25, 2015 use of force reports - like all other UFRs - were reviewed internally by, among others, a CCJ sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. (See Balicki's May 14, 2018 Dep. Tr. 27-29, DE 90-2 at Ex. 17.) The CCJ captain who reviewed the defendants' UFRs, Radames Morales Jr., concluded, based on his contemporaneous review of the surveillance video of the incident, that the force utilized on Jacobs was not justified. (See Morales' Feb. 25, 2015 UFR, DE 90-2 at Ex. 6.) Captain Morales then presented the matter to Warden Balicki, directly, for further review. (See Balicki's Dep. Tr. 23-25, DE 90-2 at Ex. 17.) On February 25, 2015, Balicki - after personally watching the video - referred the matter to Sergeant Heriberto Ortiz of the Cumberland County Department of Corrections Special Investigation Unit (“SIU”). (See June 30, 2016 Internal Affairs Investigation Report, DE 96-3 at Ex. N.) On that same day, Sergeant Ortiz reviewed defendants' UFRs and the Jacobs video. (See id.) Based on that review, Ortiz “found that there was sufficient evidence to substantiate Inmate Jacobs['] allegation of excessive force.” (Id.) On February 26, 2015, Ortiz contacted the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office and requested that the it perform a “legal review” of the incident. (Id.; see also Supervisory Defs.' SUMF ¶ 156, DE 90-1.)

         Over the next several months, Sergeant Ortiz and the Prosecutor's Office investigated the matter in tandem. On June 19, 2015, Ortiz interviewed Officer Armstrong about his involvement in the February 25th incident. (See Ortiz's SIU Report, DE 96-4 at Ex. S.) Ortiz found that Armstrong's assertion that “Jacobs was verbally aggressive and non-compliant” - as Armstrong reported in his UFR and again reaffirmed during his June 19th interview - was inconsistent with the video evidence. (Id.) On June 25, 2015, Ortiz interviewed Officer Anderson. (Id.) During that interview, Anderson conceded that he witnessed Williams strike Jacobs. (Id.) When Anderson explained that his UFR did not include that observation because “he was taught to only write in his reports what he had done[, ]” Ortiz - who was previously Anderson's training supervisor - countered that he had expressly trained Anderson to “document what you observed and to document what your actions are.” (Id.) Anderson then conceded that “he had left a lot out of his [UFR]” and that he “just [wrote] what he did” - and not “what happened” - because that was what he was instructed to do by his supervisor, Officer Velazquez. (Id.) On July 13, 2015, Ortiz interviewed Velazquez. Ortiz concluded that Velazquez's UFR was inaccurate insomuch as he “did not witness the entire incident as it transpired [because he was approximately four bunks away, with an obstructed view, and his attention was otherwise diverted].” (Id.)

         On July 15, 2015, Cumberland County initiated civil disciplinary proceedings against Anderson, Armstrong, Velazquez, and Williams. (See July 15, 2015 Notices of Disciplinary Action, DE 90-2 at Exs. 11-14.) Anderson and Armstrong were charged with providing false information in their respective UFRs. (See Id. at Exs. 11-12.) Velazquez was charged with failing to appropriately supervise the situation. (See Id. at Ex. 13.) Williams faced disciplinary charges because he was “observed on camera using excessive force on [Jacobs] on [February 25, 2015].” (See Id. at Ex. 14.) Williams was also charged criminally. (See, e.g., Asst. Prosecutor Shapiro's June 2, 2015 Letter, DE 90-2 at Ex. 24.)

         The record demonstrates - and Jacobs does not dispute - that Anderson, Armstrong, Marrero, Velazquez, and Williams all received excessive force training on multiple occasions prior to February 25, 2015. (See, generally, Supervisory Defs.' SUMF ¶ 161, DE 90-1; Jacobs' SUMF Response, DE 96-6.) CCJ Captain Michael Palau's deposition testimony on the scope of this training indicates that CCJ corrections officers are instructed on appropriate use of force during a 120-hours initial training course and at a subsequent 12-14 weeks' long academy program, and that each officer is thereafter required to undergo twice-yearly use of force training. (See Palau's July 2, 2018 Dep. Tr. 14-17, 26-29, DE 90-2 at Ex. 20.) It is undisputed that CCJ's use of force policy on February 25, 2015 required that “[i]n any case when a corrections officer uses force to control inmates, the minimum force possible under the circumstances shall be used.” (See Sept. 12, 2001 Use of Force Policy, DE 90-2 at Ex. 30.) Furthermore, the parties agree that no complaints for excessive force had ever been made against any of the individual CO defendants prior to February 25, 2015. (See Supervisory Defs.' SUMF ¶ 161, DE 90-1; accord Jacobs' SUMF Response, DE 96-6 at p. 50.)

         B. Procedural Background

         Jacobs initiated this action, through prior counsel, on March 18, 2016. (Compl., DE 1.) Jacobs, again through prior counsel, filed his amended complaint, i.e., the pertinent pleading in this matter, on May 1, 2017. (DE 34.) Count I is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force/failure to intervene claim against Officer Williams, and the Other CO Defendants, i.e., Armstrong, Anderson, Marrero, and Velazquez (hereinafter collectively referred to as the “Corrections Officer Defendants” or simply the “CO Defendants”). Count II is a § 1983 conspiracy claim against the CO Defendants.[3]Count III is a § 1983 municipal liability claim against Cumberland County/supervisory liability claim against Warden Balicki. Count IV is a New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”) claim against all named defendants. Count V is a state law assault and battery tort claim against the Corrections Officer Defendants.

         On December 21, 2018, Officer Williams, Cumberland County and Balicki, and the Other CO Defendants each filed their respective summary judgment motions. (DEs 89, 90, and 91.) On February 5, 2019, Jacobs filed one omnibus opposition to all three motions. (DE 96.) On March 11, 2019, the defendants each filed their respective reply briefs. (DEs 100, 101, and 102.)

         III. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “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). A fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” and a dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude the Court from granting a motion for summary judgment. Id.

         A party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion and must demonstrate that there is an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “A party asserting that a fact [is not] genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents . . ., affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). After the moving party adequately supports its motion, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). To withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. “[I]f the non-movant's evidence is merely ‘colorable' or is ‘not significantly probative,' the court may grant summary judgment.” Messa v. Omaha Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 122 F.Supp.2d 523, 528 (D.N.J. 2000) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50)). “If reasonable minds could differ as to the import of the evidence, ” however, summary judgment is not appropriate. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-51.

         “In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the nonmoving party's evidence ‘is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)). Again, the Court's role in deciding a motion for summary judgment is simply “to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Ultimately, there is “no genuine issue as to any material ...


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