922 F.2d 1097 (3rd Cir. 1990), 89-5487, Brown v. Grabowski

Docket Nº:Trolan, and the Borough of Roselle, Appellants in 89-5487.
Citation:922 F.2d 1097
Party Name:Regina BROWN, Administratrix and Administratrix Ad Prosequendum of the Estate of Debbie Evans v. Detective Felix GRABOWSKI, individually and as a police officer of the Roselle Police Department, New Jersey; Patrolman William Schwartz, individually and as a police officer of the Roselle Police Department, New Jersey; Chief Vincent F. Trolan, individ
Case Date:December 31, 1990
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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922 F.2d 1097 (3rd Cir. 1990)

Regina BROWN, Administratrix and Administratrix Ad

Prosequendum of the Estate of Debbie Evans


Detective Felix GRABOWSKI, individually and as a police

officer of the Roselle Police Department, New Jersey;

Patrolman William Schwartz, individually and as a police

officer of the Roselle Police Department, New Jersey; Chief

Vincent F. Trolan, individually and as Chief of the Roselle

Police Department, New Jersey; Roselle Police Department;

and The Borough of Roselle.

Appeal of Felix GRABOWSKI, William Schwartz, Vincent F.

Trolan, and the Borough of Roselle, Appellants in 89-5487.

Appeal of Regina BROWN, Appellant in 89-5532.

Nos. 89-5487, 89-5532.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 31, 1990

Argued Jan. 16, 1990.

Rehearing and Rehearing In Banc Denied

Jan. 29, 1991.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Barry T. Albin (argued), James E. Trabilsy, Richard P. Jacobson, Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, Woodbridge, N.J., for appellant in 89-5532.

Lindsey H. Taylor (argued), Kalb, Friedman, Siegelbaum & Moran, Roseland, N.J., Irving F. Sturm, Mun. Atty., Roselle, N.J., for appellants in 89-5487.

Before BECKER, GREENBERG and NYGAARD, Circuit Judges.


BECKER, Circuit Judge.

Deborah Evans was found frozen to death in the trunk of her car in February of 1985 in a motel parking lot in Iselin, New Jersey. Clifton McKenzie, Evans' former live-in boyfriend, had abducted her and imprisoned her there. In a separate episode,

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which occurred shortly before this fatal abduction, McKenzie had held Evans hostage for a period of three days, during which he repeatedly threatened and sexually assaulted her. During the weekend following this preliminary reign of terror, members of Evans' family and Evans herself related these events to Patrolman William Schwartz and Detective Felix Grabowski of the Police Department of Roselle Borough, where Evans lived and where most of the events took place. Despite the entreaties of Evans and her family, however, no criminal charges against McKenzie were filed.

These cross-appeals are from the district court's summary judgment rulings in a civil rights case that Evans' personal representative brought against the Borough and employees of its police department. This action is based upon allegations that, but for the sloth and callousness of the department in general and of Detective Grabowski in particular, Evans' death would not have occurred. Plaintiff asserts that the defendants, discriminatorily and through willful neglect, denied Evans her constitutional rights to due process and of access to the civil and criminal courts. Plaintiff further alleges that the Roselle Police Department had a long-standing policy of inaction in domestic violence cases, motivated by discrimination against women, leading to a violation of Evans' equal protection rights.

Because of the absence of finality, we lack appellate jurisdiction over several of the district court's orders granting or denying summary judgment with respect to plaintiff's federal claims. Deciding a question of first impression in this circuit, and influenced by New Jersey's inhospitability to interlocutory appeals, we conclude that the doctrine of Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985), does not provide us with jurisdiction to entertain the appeals by the defendant police officers from the denial of their motions for summary judgment, on grounds of qualified immunity, with respect to plaintiff's state law claims. Under Mitchell, however, we plainly have appellate jurisdiction over the appeals of Detective Grabowski, Officer Schwartz, and Roselle Police Chief Vincent Trolan (in his individual capacity) from the district court's denials of their motions for summary judgment invoking qualified immunity as a defense to several of plaintiff's federal claims.

Our qualified immunity inquiry presents a novel question concerning the scope of review of the district court's decisions denying defendants' claims of qualified immunity. We conclude that, in determining whether the district court properly denied defendants' claims of immunity, we may consider not only whether the rights that defendants are claimed to have violated were clearly established at the time of their contact with Evans, but also whether they were established at all. In addition, we construe Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987), and our own precedents to require that we engage in an analysis of the facts adduced concerning defendants' conduct--and not only the pleadings--in determining whether they are entitled to qualified official immunity.

On the merits, plaintiff's claim of denial of access to the civil courts presents us with some difficulty. In framing this cause of action, plaintiff relies on a New Jersey statute that expands avenues of recourse for victims of domestic violence, requiring that police inform these victims of their right to obtain a restraining order against an attacker in the civil courts. In light of this statute and the egregious inaction of Detective Grabowski, plaintiff presents an appealing case for relief. Ultimately, however, plaintiff's theory that defendants violated Evans' right of access to the civil courts by failing to provide her with the assistance required by New Jersey law is not constitutionally cognizable. The constitutional right of access to the civil courts simply is not expansive enough to encompass the state statutory rights that defendants are claimed to have violated. Plaintiff's theory also runs afoul of the Supreme Court's holding in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Service, 489 U.S. 189, 109 S.Ct. 998, 103 L.Ed.2d 249 (1989), that a state's failure to take affirmative action to protect a victim

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from the actions of a third person will not, in the absence of a custodial relationship between the state and the victim, support a civil rights claim. DeShaney compels the additional conclusion that plaintiff's civil court access claim does not present a genuine issue of material fact. Consequently, from both a legal and a factual perspective, a reasonable police officer could not have known that by failing to facilitate Evans' access to the civil courts, he was in any way violating her constitutional rights. Accordingly, we must reverse the district court's denial of defendants' motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's civil court access claim.

The propriety of the district court's refusal to grant summary judgment for defendants on plaintiff's equal protection claim turns on the degree to which the principles set forth in Hynson v. City of Chester, 864 F.2d 1026 (3d Cir.1988), were clearly established at the time of the events in question. Hynson holds that the equal protection clause is implicated when (1) the policy or custom of the police is to provide less protection to victims of domestic violence than to other victims of violence; (2) discrimination against women is a motivating factor; and (3) the plaintiff has been injured by this custom. Although plaintiff might survive defendants' motion for summary judgment had the events in question occurred after Hynson, we read that case as announcing a new principle of law in this circuit. We conclude that the right to equal protection that plaintiff asserts was not clearly established in 1985. Because a reasonable police officer would not have known that he was violating Evans' right to equal protection, Grabowski's and Schwartz's motions for summary judgment based on qualified immunity should have been granted. Further, because there is no evidence of his personal involvement in the actions or matters in question, we must also reverse the district court's denial of summary judgment for Chief Trolan, sued in his individual capacity.


The facts of this case, which are essentially uncontested, chronicle with numbing detail the disturbing inaction on the part of Roselle's Police Department that led to this tragedy.

Deborah Evans' ordeal began early in January of 1985, when Clifton McKenzie, without permission, left the drug rehabilitation center into which he had been paroled following a conviction on forgery and drug charges. According to McKenzie, he began using heroin and related drugs within four days of leaving his treatment program. Immediately after leaving the center, McKenzie, who previously had lived with Evans, took up residence in her apartment. Evans objected to McKenzie's presence there and told him that she wanted nothing else to do with him, unless he returned to his rehabilitation program.

Several days after McKenzie took up residence with her, Evans left her apartment and asked a friend, Jan Parker, to retrieve her apartment keys from McKenzie. When Parker arrived at Evans' apartment, McKenzie beat her until she lost consciousness. McKenzie then abducted Parker and drove her to New York City in her car. Once in New York, Parker managed to escape, contacted the New York City Housing Authority Police, and was taken to a hospital.

The Housing Authority Police immediately reported the incident to the Roselle Police Department, where the investigation of the assault and kidnapping of Jan Parker fell to Detective Felix Grabowski, now a defendant in this case. Based on his conversations with a Housing Authority patrolman, the doctor who treated Parker, and Parker herself, Grabowski determined that there was probable cause to believe that McKenzie had committed aggravated assault, kidnapping, and car theft. Grabowski did not seek to obtain a warrant for McKenzie's arrest, however, and merely advised Parker to come to Roselle...

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