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Valles v. Cumberland County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 28, 2019

EMILY VALLES, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF JAIME GONZALEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          RYAN LOCKMAN, ESQ. MARK B. FROST & ASSOCIATES ATTORNEY FOR THE PLAINTIFF

          ALAN G. GIEBNER, ESQ. BUONADONNA & BENSON, P.C. ATTORNEY FOR DEFENDANTS CUMBERLAND COUNTY AND WARDEN ROBERT BALICKI

          OPINION

          Hon. Noel L. Hillman, United States District Judge

         Currently before the Court is the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Cumberland County and Warden Robert Balicki. (ECF No. 50). Plaintiff filed a response to the motion (ECF No. 57), to which the moving Defendants replied. (ECF No. 62). For the following reasons, Defendants' motion will be granted and judgment in this matter shall be entered in favor of Defendants Cumberland County and Warden Robert Balicki.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 4, 2016, Plaintiff Jaime Gonzalez[1] filed through counsel a complaint alleging that he had been subjected to excessive force while he was a pre-trial detainee at the Cumberland County Jail in 2014. (ECF No. 1). In that complaint, counsel presented the following factual allegations as the basis for Plaintiff's claims:

On the date in question, August 18, 2014, Plaintiff was assigned to A-Dorm.
An inmate, whose identity is unknown to Plaintiff, struck Plaintiff. Two other inmates came to Plaintiff's aid, and began scuffling with the inmate who initially struck Plaintiff.
At no time did Plaintiff himself scuffle, fight with, or strike any inmate during this incident.
Without Plaintiff's knowledge, Defendant [Officer Corley] entered A-Dorm and - without saying anything - hit plaintiff in the face with gate keys he was holding.
As a result, Plaintiff fell, hit his head on the gate, and then fell to the ground, hitting his head on concrete.
Plaintiff suffered a concussion and thereafter suffered a seizure shortly after hitting the ground.
After [the assault] by Defendant [Corley], Plaintiff remained on the jail cell floor [until] Defendant [Corley] . . . dragged Plaintiff out of A-Dorm by Plaintiff's leg, causing further damage to Plaintiff's body and head.
. . . .
Due to the severity of his injuries, Plaintiff was taken via helicopter from the Cumberland County Jail to the Cooper University Hospital Emergency Room, where he was treated for injuries caused by Defendants, including but not limited to a concussion, seizures, a fractured orbital bone, and other injuries.

(ECF No. 1 at 3-4, paragraph numbers omitted). Because the complaint was prepared by counsel, Plaintiff neither signed nor otherwise attested to the validity of the allegations contained in his pleading. (Id. at 1-14).

         Based on these allegations, Plaintiff's complaint raised claims against Defendant Corley for excessive force and failure to treat his injuries, as well as two claims against the moving Defendants - a claim for municipal/supervisory liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the moving Defendants, Warden Robert Balicki and Cumberland County, were responsible for the alleged excessive force used by Corley because of a policy or custom of failing to train officers or investigate uses of force which directly resulted in the alleged assault against Plaintiff; and a virtually identical state law claim against the moving Defendants arising out of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.[2] (ECF No. 1 at 7-12).

         Because Plaintiff died during the pendency of this matter, (see ECF No. 24), he was never deposed and therefore never provided testimony or a signed affidavit or certification laying out his version of the events underlying his complaint. Likewise, because Defendant Corley refused to participate in his defense and failed to appear for his deposition, (see, e.g., ECF No. 23), and because Plaintiff was otherwise unable to secure Corley's testimony through discovery or any related mechanism, no testimony from Corley is contained within the record, though certain documents provided by Corley as part of an internal jail investigation, discussed below, are available. As no deposition of the other inmates involved in the scuffle which preceded Corley's arrival on the scene has been presented to this Court in relation to the motion for summary judgment, the record of this matter is utterly devoid of any direct testimony presenting any version of the events which occurred on that date from the individuals directly involved in the prison scuffle and resulting intervention of Officer Corley. Instead, the record presents only third-party information regarding the August 18, 2014 incident.

         Following the incident, Warden Balicki assigned Sergeant Heriberto Ortiz to investigate “Inmate Jaime Gonzalez claims that he was assaulted by Off. Jason Corley.” (Document 4 attached to ECF No. 50 at 20). According to Sergeant Ortiz's investigation,

On August 18, 2014, there was a physical altercation [which] took place in A Dorm and three inmates were involved. The inmates in question were Jaime Gonzalez, Pedro Andujar and Tremaine Davis. Off. Corley gave the three inmates a verbal command to stop fighting and when none of them complied he implemented his pepper spray. At this time the three inmates stopped fighting. Medical was called as inmate J. Gonzalez was bleeding from his head and he was subsequently transported to the hospital.

(Id.).

         In a signed witness record prepared as part of that investigation, Officer Corley presented the following version of the events in question:

I heard arguing[, ] when I went to investigate [inmate] Pedro Andujar, Jaime Gonzalez, and another unknown inmate began assaulting Tremaine Davis. I issued verbal commands for them to stop which were ignored. I then issued a one second burst of . . . pepper spray on [inmate] Andujar and handcuffed him, then removed him ...

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