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Dibuonaventura v. Dalton

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 3, 2019

JOSEPH DIBUONAVENTURA, Plaintiff,
v.
SEAN F. DALTON and RAFAEL MUNIZ, Defendants.

          OPINION

          HON. JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motions [Docs. 54 & 58] to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint. Having considered the parties' submissions, the Court decides this matter without oral argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motions will be granted.

         Background

         This civil rights case stems from the termination of Plaintiffs employment as a police officer for the Washington Township Police Department ("WTPD"). Defendant Rafael Muniz, at all relevant times, was Chief of Police for WTPD, which is located in Gloucester County New Jersey. Defendant Sean F. Dalton served as Prosecutor for Gloucester County during all times relevant to this matter.

         Plaintiff alleges that on or about June 5, 2012, he complained to Defendant Dalton that WTPD was unable to locate a police report that was the subject of an OPRA request; the report concerned the alleged theft of over $6, 000 of jewelry by Defendant Muniz's son. Dalton allegedly authorized an investigation into the missing report, and the report was located. On or about June 21, 2012, Plaintiff complained to the Washington Township Business Administrator that Muniz had engaged in misconduct by failing to refer his son's case to the Prosecutor's Office for investigation. Plaintiff asserts that the complaint was communicated to Dalton, who allegedly took no action. Plaintiff states that he filed a complaint with the Prosecutor's Office on or about August 6, 2012 regarding Muniz's alleged mishandling of the matter involving his son.

         On July 31, 2012, after a traffic stop, Plaintiff arrested Paul Moriarty for DUI and refusal to submit to a breathalyzer. Moriarty was previously Mayor of Washington Township and at the time of his arrest was a State Assemblyman. While Mayor, Moriarty had promoted Defendant Muniz from Lieutenant to Chief of Police. Plaintiff complains that, despite a conflict of interest, Muniz was involved in the investigation prompted by Moriarty's August 11, 2012 complaint with WTPD as to whether Plaintiffs actions on July 31, 2012 constituted misconduct.

         Muniz's involvement in the Moriarty complaint continued until on or about August 13, 2012 when Muniz submitted a conflict letter to the Prosecutor's Office, requesting that the Prosecutor's Office assume responsibility for the investigation. After consulting with the New Jersey Attorney General for guidance, on September 5, 2012, Dalton informed Muniz that the Prosecutor's Office would handle the internal affairs investigation regarding Moriarty's complaint. On or about October 17, 2012, Dalton issued findings regarding the internal affairs investigation prompted by Plaintiffs complaint; he concluded that Muniz did not engage in misconduct regarding the criminal investigation involving his son.

         Instead, the internal affairs investigation into Plaintiff regarding the Moriarty arrest was converted to a criminal investigation. On November 9, 2012, Plaintiff was served with thirteen criminal charges relating to the manner in which he conducted the Moriarty arrest as well as false information contained in the investigation report regrading the Moriarty stop. Approximately two weeks later, Plaintiff was suspended without pay. According to the Second Amended Complaint, on or about November 26, 2012, Muniz informed Dalton of another internal affairs investigation of Plaintiff in which the complaining witness was the brother of a WTPD Captain; this is referred to as the "warnings case."

         On May 1, 2013, Plaintiff was indicted on the criminal charges filed by Moriarty and all charges against Moriarty were dismissed by the Prosecutor's Office.

         On or about October 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey against Washington Township, Washington Township Administrator Robert Smith, and Muniz alleging claims under the New Jersey Constitution and Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA") related to Plaintiffs July 31, 2012 traffic stop of Moriarty. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that his State constitutional rights were violated in that Muniz assisted Moriarty in crafting the criminal complaint against Plaintiff. Summary judgment was granted in favor of Muniz and was affirmed on appeal by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

         On March 3, 2015, Plaintiff was acquitted of all criminal charges stemming from the Moriarty complaint. Accordingly, on March 6, 2015, Dalton advised Muniz that the Prosecutor's Office had concluded its criminal investigation and prosecution of Plaintiff, and WTPD could proceed with its own internal affairs investigation as it deemed appropriate.[1] Plaintiff ultimately was charged with violating N.J. Stat. Ann. § 40A: 14-147 and found guilty of misconduct by a hearing officer, resulting in his termination from WTPD.

         Plaintiff filed this federal court action against Defendants Dalton and Muniz on March 3, 2017. Three claims remain in Plaintiffs Second Amended Complaint before this Court: (i) violation of Plaintiffs First Amendment right to be free from political retaliation in that the manner in which Plaintiff was treated and his internal affairs charges were handled by Defendants was politically motivated; (ii) denial of procedural due process in that Defendants failed to have procedural protections required by State statute, Defendants "schemed" to charge Plaintiff before the adjudication of Moriarty's DUI and refusal charges, and Defendants proceeded with their investigation without protecting Plaintiff from conflicts of interest presented by Muniz's involvement in the administrative investigation and discipline process; and (iii) Dalton's violation of Plaintiff s right to equal protection in that Plaintiff was treated differently from others similarly situated in the internal affairs and administrative process because Dalton allowed Muniz to participate.

         Standard on Motion to Dismiss

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides that a court may dismiss a complaint "for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege facts that raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While a court must accept as true all allegations in the plaintiffs complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Phillips v. County of Allegheny,515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008), a court is not required to accept sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations, unwarranted inferences, or unsupported conclusions. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Disl,132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The complaint must state sufficient facts to show that the legal allegations are not simply possible, but plausible. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234. "A claim has ...


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