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Rodgers v. Laura and John Arnold Foundation

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 11, 2019

JUNE RODGERS, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Christian Phillip Nolan Rodgers, Plaintiff,
v.
LAURA AND JOHN ARNOLD FOUNDATION and ANNE MILGRAM, Defendants.

          OPINION

          JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ U.S.D.J.

         This matter is before the Court on a motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) filed by the remaining Defendants. Oral argument on the motion was heard on September 27, 2018 and the record of that proceeding is incorporated here. For the reasons placed on the record that day, and those articulated below, the motion will be granted.

         Background

         The case focuses on whether New Jersey's Criminal Justice Reform Act (“CJRA”), legislation that became effective on January 1, 2017, violates the New Jersey Products Liability Act. Prior to this reform, New Jersey's Constitution afforded criminal defendants awaiting trial the right to bail except in capital cases. The reform was contingent upon voter approval of an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution replacing the guarantee of bail with a provision allowing judges to order pretrial detention under limited circumstances and authorizing the Legislature to set procedures for pretrial release and detention decisions.

         The CJRA moved pretrial release decisions away from a resource-based model heavily reliant on monetary bail to a risk-based model. Consistent with the constitutional amendment, the statute expressly requires courts, when making pretrial release decisions, to impose pretrial conditions that will reasonably assure: (1) the defendant's appearance in court when required, (2) the protection of the safety of any person or community, and (3) that the defendant will not obstruct or attempt to obstruct the criminal justice process. The CJRA provides a hierarchy of pretrial release conditions and requires courts to utilize the least restrictive options necessary to achieve the three goals noted above. The major difference between the new system and the old system is that judges must first consider the use of non-monetary pretrial release conditions, which has resulted in a significant reduction in the use of monetary bail.

         In order to assess risk, the CJRA utilizes a Public Safety Assessment (“PSA”). In particular, the State adopted a PSA developed by Defendant the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (“Foundation”). The PSA is a data-based method that helps courts assess the risk that the criminal defendant will fail to appear for future court appearances or commit additional crimes and/or violent crimes if released pending trial. After scores are assessed, a decision-making framework proposes pretrial conditions to manage the risk. Although the trial judge must consider the PSA scores and pretrial conditions recommendations, the court makes the ultimate decision on conditions of release or detention after considering a variety of factors besides the PSA.

         The Complaint alleges that in the first six months of 2017, New Jersey courts granted 3, 307 motions for pretrial detention and approximately 18, 000 individuals were released on non-monetary conditions. This matter focuses on the release of one of those criminal defendants in April 2017. Plaintiff claims that on April 5, 2017, Jules Black was arrested by the New Jersey State Police and charged for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Plaintiff alleges that Black was released on non-monetary conditions the following day because he had a low PSA score. Three days later, Black allegedly murdered Christian Rodgers. At the time of his death, Rodgers was 26 years old and is survived by his mother, Plaintiff June Rodgers, who brings this lawsuit both individually and on behalf of her son.

         The Complaint also named as a Defendant Anne Milgram, the Foundation's former Vice President of Criminal Justice.

         Motion to Dismiss Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits a motion to dismiss “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]” For a complaint to survive dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), it must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Further, a plaintiff must “allege sufficient facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will uncover proof of her claims.” Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 789 (3d Cir. 2016). In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, district courts must separate the factual and legal elements. Fowler v. UFMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009) (“Iqbal ... provides the final nail-in-the-coffin for the ‘no set of facts' standard that applied to federal complaints before Twombly.”). The Court “must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, ” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210, “and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.” Connelly, 809 F.3d at 787 (citations omitted).

         Restatements of the elements of a claim, however, are legal conclusions and, therefore, not entitled to a presumption of truth. Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 224 (3d Cir. 2011).

         Discussion

         The New Jersey Products Liability Act (PLA) requires plaintiffs suing under the PLA to prove “by a preponderance of the evidence that the product causing the harm was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose because it[:]

a. deviated from the design specifications, formulae, or performance standards of the manufacturer or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same ...

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