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Chester v. Cape May County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 25, 2019

CAPE MAY COUNTY, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court by way of Plaintiff Arthur T. Chester, III's Complaint, asserting violations of the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 25). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from Plaintiffs pretrial detention at the Cape May County Correctional Center. On June 10, 2015, Plaintiff entered the jail as a result of his arrest for burglary and related charges. Plaintiff alleges that upon entering the jail, he informed Defendants Logue or Schienk that he had a “no-contact order” against a fellow inmate, Aaron Shelton, who was the leader of the bloods gang members in the jail.[1] Plaintiff feared Mr. Shelton and other bloods members because Mr. Shelton burglarized Plaintiffs home and Plaintiff testified against Mr. Shelton.

         For several weeks, Mr. Shelton harassed Plaintiff by taking Plaintiffs food trays and making Plaintiff wash Mr. Shelton's laundry. According to Defendants, there is no evidence that any Cape May employees “ever witnessed or were informed that plaintiff had to clean for Shelton or any other blood members.” (ECF No. 25-4, at 4-5). Plaintiff strongly disputes this allegation, contending that he informed Defendants about these issues on official correspondence, but does not cite to anything other than the Complaint. (ECF No. 26-1, at 1).

         In early July of 2015, the State transferred Mr. Shelton to Camden County. After his departure, other bloods members took Plaintiffs food trays and called him a rat or snitch. (ECF No. 25-4, at 5). Plaintiff contends that he composed a number of correspondence slips for protection detailing the above, but never received a response. (ECF No. 25-4, at 7). Plaintiff did, however, keep copies for himself. (Id.). Additionally, although Plaintiff recalls speaking to some defendants regarding those slips, he cannot recall the names of those individuals. (Id.).

         The parties dispute whether Defendants are in possession of any of those slips and whether Plaintiff handed in the slips in the first place. Plaintiff does not specify to whom he provided the slips and implies that some or all of the Defendants ignored or destroyed his correspondence, or both. (ECF No. 26-1, at 2). Defendants maintain that none of the slips “were or are in the possession of the Defendants]” and that “therefore . . . plaintiff never did hand in these . . . slips.” (ECF No. 25-4, at 8).

         Ultimately, on July 18, 2015, Waladin Snow, an alleged bloods member, attacked Plaintiff, resulting in serious injuries. The parties dispute whether the injuries resulted from a mutual fight or an orchestrated “hit, ” who initiated the fight, and the integrity of the investigation relating to the incident. (ECF No. 26-1, at 2-3). Plaintiff also contends that Defendants ceded control of the area of the jail where these events took place, to the bloods.

         On January 4, 2017, Plaintiff named[2] Cape May County; Sheriff Gary Schaffer; Warden Donald Lombardo; Lieutenant Campbell; Sergeant Prince; Sergeant Faircloth; Sergeant Caldwell; Sergeant Rucci; Correctional Officer Sharp; Correctional Officer Schenck; and Correctional Officer Weatherby as Defendants in this action. Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants violated Plaintiffs rights under the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.


         A court should grant summary judgment “if 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); see also Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 656-57 (2014). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, a court must construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Cotton, 572 U.S. at 657. The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact remains. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). “[W]ith respect to an issue on which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof, ” the moving party may discharge its burden “by ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 325.

         If the moving party meets its threshold burden, the opposing party must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue as to a material fact for trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Fed. R Civ. P. 56(c) (setting forth types of evidence that may show that genuine issues of material fact exist). The non-moving party must at least present probative evidence from which the jury might return a verdict in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257. Where the non-moving party fails to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, ” the movant is entitled to summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “[Unsupported allegations . . . and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment.” Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Scheidemantle v. Slippery Rock Univ. State Sys. of Higher Educ, 470 F.3d 535, 538 (3d Cir. 2006) (“To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party needs to show specific facts such that a reasonable jury could find in that party's favor, thereby establishing a genuine issue of fact for trial.”).


         A. Municipal Liability Under § 1983

         The County of Cape May argues that summary judgment is appropriate because Plaintiff has failed to support his claim against a local government entity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To succeed on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege two things: first, a violation of a right under the Constitution, and second, that a “person” acting under color of state law committed the violation. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Com. of Pa., 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d. Cir. 1994)). The Supreme Court has established that § 1983's definition of “person” includes municipalities and other local government entities. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).

         A plaintiff may not, however, hold a local government unit “liable for the unconstitutional acts of its employees on a theory of respondeat superior.” Thomas v. Cumberland Cty., 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014). To hold such an entity liable under § 1983, plaintiffs must demonstrate that a local government unit adopted a policy or custom and that such policy or custom had been “the moving force” behind the deprivation of their constitutional rights. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 694.

         Municipal policy generally requires that a local governing body's officers officially adopt and promulgate a “statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision.” Id. at 690. A municipal custom, although lacking the formal approval of a policy, refers to those official practices which are “so permanent and well settled as to constitute . . . the force of law.” Id. at 691.

         Under certain circumstances, a municipality's failure to properly train its employees and officers can amount to a “custom” under § 1983. See City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989). When a plaintiff alleges that a policy “concerns a failure to train or supervise municipal employees, liability under section 1983 requires a showing that the failure amounts to ‘deliberate indifference' to the rights of persons with whom those employees will come into contact.” Thomas, 749 F.3d at 222 (quoting Carter v. City of Phila., 181 F.3d 339, 357 (3d Cir. 1999)). “A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is ‘ordinarily necessary' to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train.” Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 62 (2011) (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cty., Okl. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 409 (1997)).

         The “first inquiry in any case alleging municipal liability under § 1983 is . . . whether there is a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation.” Canton, 489 U.S. at 385. The County of Cape May may satisfy its burden for summary judgment by showing “that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, ” and does so here. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Assuming arguendo that there was a violation of a constitutional right, Plaintiff has failed to provide evidence to show that the County contributed to that violation. See West, 487 U.S. at 48.

         Plaintiff alleges that the County of Cape May “facilitated” a “conspiracy of silence” by maintaining a deficient record keeping system for detainee complaints. (ECF No. 1, at 4; ECF No. 26, at 10). He contends that unlike the electronic system at state prisons, the handwritten correspondence system allows the County to avoid liability “when it does not want to be informed of problems” and allows the County to thwart or deny access to the courts. (ECF No. 26, at 10). Plaintiff also contends that the County failed to establish and enforce any policy, practice, or custom to supervise, control, or otherwise prevent the alleged violations in the Complaint. (ECF No. 1, at 7).

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff does not explain his theory as to how a deficient recordkeeping system, could prevent a person from say, filing a complaint in federal or state court. To the extent that Plaintiff contends that the system makes it intentionally more difficult to prove claims in court, he ...

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