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Brookman v. Township of Hillside

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 23, 2019

TOWNSHIP OF HILLSIDE, et al, Defendants. Count Claim Defendant(s)


          WILLIAM J. MARTINI. U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiffs Howard, Jeffrey, and Barbara Brookman bring this fourteen-count suit against various state and local government officials and entities for conduct related to their May 2007 arrests. The matter comes before the Court on the Defendants' motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 91-93. For the reasons set forth below, the motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On May 9, 2007, Edgewood, New Jersey police officers arrested Plaintiffs Howard, Jeffrey, and Barbara Brookman ("Plaintiffs") after they discovered an elderly woman named Florence Siegel at Barbara Brookman's residence in need of medical care. Plaintiffs Barbara and Jeffrey (Barbara's son) were arrested for elder neglect. Jeffrey was released without being charged. Barbara was charged with and convicted of neglect. Her direct appeal of that conviction was dismissed. Plaintiff Howard Brookman was arrested for obstruction of justice. Howard's prosecution terminated when he completed New Jersey's Pre-Trial Intervention program.

         Before their criminal cases concluded, Plaintiffs brought suit against various police officers, prosecutors, and government entities for violations of Plaintiffs' state and federal rights during their arrests, interrogations, and prosecutions. See Compl., ECF No. 1. After motion practice and delayed discovery, two groups of defendants remain: (1)the Union County Prosecutors Office ("UCPO") and Assistant Prosecutors David P. Shneider, Albert Ceraadas, Jr., and Joshua F. McMahon (with UCPO, the "Prosecutor Defendants") and (2) the Township of Hillside ("Township"); the Hillside Police Department ("HPD"); Police Chief Robert Quinlan; Police Officers Matthew Ross, Matthew Cove, Tripoli (no first name provided), Javier De La Torre, A. Lomonte, and R. Floyd, and Detectives James Holmes and Gen Deo ("Officer Defendants," with the Township and HPD, "Hillside Defendants," and together with the Prosecutor Defendants, "Defendants"). The following claims remain:


Count 1

Libel Per Se and Slander


Count 4

42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985: False Arrest, False Imprisonment, and Malicious Prosecution

All Defendants other than Quinlan and Deo

Count 5

42 U.S.C. § 1983: Concealment of Evidence

Schneider, Cemadas, Cove, Holmes

Count 6

42 U.S.C. § 1983 and N.J.S.A. § 2C: 28-6: Fabrication of Evidence

Schneider, Cemadas, Cove, Holmes

Count 7

42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985: Conspiracy and Obstruction of Justice

Schneider, Cemadas, Cove, Holmes

Count 8

42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985; N.J.S.A. §§ 10:6-1, 5-1; N.J. Const. Art. 1 ¶¶ 1, 5, 7: Religious and Ethnic Discrimination

Ross, Cove, Tripoli, De La Torra

Count 9

Spoliation of Evidence

Quinlin, Gen Deo, Township

Count 10

Invasion of Privacy - False Light

All Defendants

Count 11

Conversion of Property

"[T]he [O]fficers"

Count 12

Assault and Battery

"[P]olice [D]efendants," including Tripoli and Ross

Count 13

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

All Defendants

Count 14

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

All Defendants


         In three separate briefs, Defendants move for summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' remaining claims. See ECF Nos. 91-93. Plaintiffs opposed, Pl. Opp., ECF No. 104, and Defendants replied, Reply Brs., ECF Nos. 105, 107-108. As the Prosecutor Defendants' and Hillside Defendants' arguments are largely distinct, their motions will be addressed separately.

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FRCP 56. A fact is material if its determination might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A dispute is genuine if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. To make this determination, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the nonmovant's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007).

         The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant meets this burden by pointing to an absence of evidence supporting an essential element as to which the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 325. If the moving party carries this initial burden, "the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." United States v. Donovan, 661 F.3d 174, 185 (3d Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). "The non-moving party cannot rest on mere pleadings or allegations; rather it must point to actual evidence in the record on which a jury could decide an issue of fact its way." El v. SEPTA, 479 F.3d 232, 238 (3d Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         "A party moving for summary judgment on an issue for which it bears the ultimate burden of proof faces a more difficult road----- In such a case, if there is a chance that a reasonable factfinder would not accept a moving party's necessary propositions of fact, summary judgment is inappropriate." Donovan, 661 F.3d at 185 (citation omitted).

         B. Claims Against the Prosecutor Defendants

         Plaintiffs bring claims against the Prosecutor Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985 and various state laws. As Plaintiffs cannot overcome sovereign immunity, prosecutorial immunity, or the New Jersey Tort Claims Act's requirements to bring suit, summary judgment is GRANTED for the Prosecutor Defendants.

         1. Sovereign Immunity Defense to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985 Claims

         The Prosecutor Defendants argue the Eleventh Amendment immunizes them from liability under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985 (Counts four-seven). "Under the Eleventh Amendment, an unconsenting State is immune from suits brought in federal courts by her own citizens. This immunity protects both states and state agencies as long as the state is the real party in interest." Woodyard v. Cty. of Essex, 514 Fed.Appx. 177, 182 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663 (1974)). The protection also applies to suits against state officials in their official capacities. Lewis v. Clarke, 137 S.Ct. 1285, 1291 (2017). "[W]hen New Jersey county prosecutors engage in classic law enforcement and investigative functions, they act as officers of the State." Woodyard, 514 Fed.Appx. at 182 (quoting Coleman v. Kaye, 87 F.3d 1491, 1505 (3d Cir. 1996)). Therefore, so long as the allegations relate to the Prosecutors' "classic law enforcement functions," they are immune from official-capacity liability. See id.

         Here, Plaintiffs allege four general categories of misconduct: (1) improper conduct in Grand Jury proceedings, including a failure to present complete, exculpatory, or balanced information and impermissible, dishonest testimony by the prosecutors; (2) failure to investigate before bringing the matter to the Grand Jury; (3) improper charging of Plaintiffs Howard and Barbara Brookman without probable cause; and (4) Schneider's other misconduct, including failure to recuse himself, solicitation of a false police report, and presentation of that report to the Grand Jury, "thereby suborning perjury." Compl. ¶¶ 9-18, 28, 34, 41-42, 48. This alleged misconduct all occurred in connection with Plaintiffs' own prosecutions. Therefore, the Prosecutor Defendants were engaged in "classic law enforcement functions," and were acting as officers of the state. Woodyard, 514 Fed.Appx. at 182; see also Beightler v. Office of Essex Cty. Prosecutor, 342 Fed.Appx. 829, 832 (3d Cir. 2009) (prosecutor's office "was undeniably engaged in a classic law enforcement function when it charged" defendant). As state officers, the Prosecutor Defendants are entitled to sovereign immunity. Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment immunizes UCPO and the individual Prosecutor Defendants from suit in their official capacities. Summary judgment is GRANTED IN PART on that ground. See Lewis, 137 S.Ct. at 1291. However, Plaintiffs also bring unofficial-capacity claims against the individual Prosecutor Defendants. See Opp. at 5. Sovereign immunity is inapplicable to such claims. See Lewis, 137 S.Ct. at 1291. Thus, the Court must analyze whether another defense justifies summary judgment.

         2. Prosecutorial Immunity Defense to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985 Claims

         The Prosecutor Defendants assert they are entitled to prosecutorial immunity.

[S]tate prosecutors are absolutely immune from liability under § 1983 for actions performed in a judicial or quasi-judicial role. This immunity extends to acts that are intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, but does not encompass a prosecutor's administrative duties and those investigatory functions that do not relate to an advocate's preparation for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings. Ultimately, whether a prosecutor is entitled to absolute immunity depends on whether she establishes that she was functioning as the state's "advocate" while engaging in the alleged conduct that gives rise to the constitutional violation.

Miinchinski v. Solomon, 618 Fed.Appx. 150, 153 (3d Cir. 2015) (cleaned up). Thus, to determine whether prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity, courts examine the acts of alleged misconduct to "discern whether the Prosecutors were acting in a judicial or quasi-judicial role, or were instead performing administrative or investigatory functions." Id. (citation omitted).

         Here, the acts of alleged misconduct by the Prosecutor Defendants were committed while the Prosecutor Defendants were acting as the State's advocate, not as an administrator or investigator. See supra Part II.B.1. As to the alleged failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, "[i]t is well settled that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from claims based on their failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, so long as they did so while functioning in their prosecutorial capacity." Yarris v. Cty. of Delaware, 465 F.3d 129, 137 (3d Cir. 2006). "Prosecutorial capacity" includes conduct in grand jury proceedings. See Kulwicki v. Dawson, 969 F.2d 1454, 1465 (3d Cir. 1992) (listing instances of absolute protection); Rose v. Bartle, 871 F.2d 331, 344 n.7 (3d Cir. 1989). As to the alleged improper charging decisions, prosecutors are immune from suits based on the initiation of criminal proceedings or failures to investigate before charging. See Hughes v. Long, 242 F.3d 121, 125 (3d Cir. 2001); Jerrytone v. Musto, 167 Fed.Appx. 295, 300 (3d Cir. 2006). Even Schneider's alleged use of false testimony in the Grand Jury cannot give rise to individual liability. See Yarris, 465 F.3d at 139.

         This leaves Defendant Schneider's failure to recuse himself and the alleged solicitation of the false police report. As to recusal, Plaintiffs complain that "Schneider's decision to involve himself in the prosecution of this case therefore constituted a conflict of interest in violation of the New Jersey Code of Ethics." Compl. ¶ 12 (emphasis adjusted). Given the allegation, any argument that the claim does not relate to Schneider's "prosecutorial capacity" is unpersuasive.

         As to the alleged solicitation of a false police report, the Third Circuit analyzed similar allegations of misconduct in Rose v. Bartle, 871 F.2d 331 (3d Cir. 1989). In that case, plaintiffs alleged prosecutors "attempted to get [plaintiff] to perjure himself in the grand jury proceedings" and "subjected other grand jury witnesses to similar efforts to solicit perjury in investigatory interviews and before the grand jury, and some of these witnesses actually did perjure themselves." Id. at 344. Despite the "investigatory" language, the court provided immunity, concluding that the "pleadings indicate that the alleged solicitations of perjury occurred in preparation for the grand jury proceedings, not in an investigatory capacity." Id. at 345. Here, like in Rose, Plaintiffs allege "Schneider, at the 'eleventh hour,' directed defendant Officer Cove to come up with a so-called 'supplementary investigation report' on September 17, 2007 more than 4 months after the arrest in May 2007 and just one week before Schneider was to present this case to a grand jury." Compl. ¶¶ 15-17 (emphasis in original). Given the similarity to the allegations in Rose (i.e., solicitation of false evidence to present to the Grand Jury), like in Rose, Schneider is entitled to prosecutorial immunity. See 871 F.2d at 345.

         For these reasons, summary judgment is GRANTED on Plaintiffs 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985 claims against the Prosecutor Defendants.

         3. Tort Claims Act Defense to State Law Claims

         In Counts Ten, Thirteen, and Fourteen, Plaintiffs assert liability against the Prosecutor Defendants under various New Jersey tort theories. The Prosecutor Defendants argue Plaintiffs' state law claims are barred because they failed to file a "notice of claim." UCPO Mot. at 15, ECF No. 91-4; McMahon Mot. at 17, ECF No. 92-1. In support, they submit a sworn declaration evidencing that Plaintiff never filed a notice with the UCPO. See Varady Cert., Ex. E, Sullivan Cert. ¶¶ 8-9, ECF No. 91-5. Plaintiffs respond, without citation to any record evidence, that they "and/or attorneys acting on their behalf submitted a notice of tort claim to the prosecutor's office." Opp. at 9; see also Pl. St. of Facts ¶ 12, ¶ 9 (stating the same without citation).

         Pursuant to the New Jersey Tort Claims Act ("TCA"), to bring a suit against public entities or employees under state law, plaintiffs must file a timely "notice of claim." See N.J.S.A. §§ 59:8-8-9; Velez v. City of Jersey City, 850 A.2d 1238, 1243 (N.J. 2004). If plaintiffs fail to do so, they are generally "forever barred from recover[y]." N.J.S.A. §§ 59:8-8.

         Though the parties' briefs and supplemental statements of fact disagree on whether a notice of claim was filed, Plaintiffs do not point to any actual record evidence. The only evidence before the Court establishes that Plaintiffs never filed the required notice of claim. See Sullivan Cert. ¶¶ 8-9. Thus, there is no genuine issue of material fact on Plaintiffs state-law claims and summary judgment is GRANTED as to those counts. See El, 479 F.3d at 238. As summary judgment is granted on Plaintiffs ...

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