Garcia v. Knapp, Case No. 2:19-cv-17946-BRM-JAD

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
PartiesGREGORY GARCIA And ALISON GARCIA, Plaintiffs, v. FREDRIC M. KNAPP, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCase No. 2:19-cv-17946-BRM-JAD
Decision Date29 May 2020

FREDRIC M. KNAPP, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 2:19-cv-17946-BRM-JAD


May 29, 2020




Before the Court are three Motions to Dismiss. Defendants Janine Buchalski ("Buchalski"), Fredric M. Knapp ("Knapp"), Vincent Leo, III ("Leo"), Thomas A. Zeante ("Zeante"), and the Morris County Prosecutor's Office ("Prosecutor's Office") (together, the "Prosecutor Defendants") filed a Motion to Dismiss in Lieu of Filing an Answer seeking to dismiss Counts One and Six of the Complaint, or in the alternative to stay the litigation pending the resolution of state criminal charges pending against Plaintiff Gregory Garcia ("Mr. Garcia"). (ECF No. 6.) The Prosecutor Defendants also separately filed a Motion to Dismiss Counts Three, Four and Five. (ECF No. 7.) Defendants Anthony Fernandez ("Fernandez"), Charles Kranz ("Kranz"), David Young ("Young"), and the Wharton Police Department ("Wharton Police") (together, the "Police Defendants") also have filed a Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 18.) Mr. Garcia and Alison Garcia ("Alison Garcia," together, the "Garcias") oppose all three Motions. (ECF Nos. 15, 21) All the Defendants filed Replies. (ECF Nos. 16, 17, 22.)

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Having reviewed the submissions filed in connection with the Motion and having declined to hold oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b), for the reasons set forth below and for good cause appearing, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are GRANTED, while the Prosecutor Defendants' Motion, in the alternative, to Stay the litigation pending the completion of the criminal prosecution of Mr. Garcia is DENIED as moot.


A. Factual Background

Mr. Garcia is a police officer with the police department of Wharton, New Jersey, who resides in Morris County, New Jersey. (Compl. (ECF No. 1) ¶ 1.) Alison Garcia also resides in Morris County, New Jersey. (Id. ¶ 2.) Fernandez is Chief of Police of the Wharton Police Department. (Id. ¶ 7.) Young and Kranz are police officers with the Wharton Police. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 9, 83.) Prosecutor Knapp is "in command and control" of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, where Zelante, Buchalski, and Leo work. All Defendants who are natural persons live in Morris County, New Jersey. (Id. ¶¶ 3-9.)

In December 2016, Mr. Garcia filed a claim for Temporary Disability Insurance with the New Jersey Department of Labor, having begun seeking treatment for alcoholism in November 2016. (Id. ¶ 16.) On January 2, 2017, he checked himself into a rehabilitation program in Miami, Florida, a program he successfully completed by the end of that month. (Id. ¶¶ 17-19.). In March 2017, he was declared fit for duty after undergoing a Fitness for Duty Evaluation. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 23).

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His fitness was communicated by his treatment provider, Matthew Guller of the Institute of Forensic Psychology, to Fernandez, as well as to Knapp, Zelante and/or Leo of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 22.) Dr. Guller concluded, among other things, that Mr. Garcia "is capable of carrying a weapon and fulfilling all of the duties of his rank." (Id. ¶ 26.)

On December 4, 2017, Mr. Garcia applied for a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card with the police department of the nearby town of Dover, New Jersey. (Id. ¶ 28). He answered "no," to the question on the application asking, "Are you an alcoholic?" (Id. ¶¶ 29-30). On April 11, 2018, he applied for a handgun purchase permit. (Id. ¶ 31). Again he checked the "no" box for that application's question, "Are you an alcoholic?" (Id. ¶ 32). Mr. Garcia infers the "no" answer is appropriate because a State of New Jersey Certificate of Eligibility form for the transfer of a shotgun or rifle—a form with which he "had prior experience with"—asks the same question and next to the answer boxes states, in bold text, "*Note: a recovered alcoholic may answer no to this question." (Id. ¶ 33.) He alleges that when he signed this form he had been sober since completing his alcohol treatment in January 2017.

At some point, Fernandez came into possession of a photograph of "closed ammunition cans supposedly located" at the Garcias' house. (Id. ¶ 49). Seeing this picture, Buchalski concluded "Gregory Garcia may be in possession of a weapon that might be an assault-style firearm." (Id. ¶ 49.) Buchalski completed an affidavit used to support an application for a search warrant for the Garcia residence. (Id. ¶ 47.) A judge issued a search warrant based upon Buchalski's affidavit. (Id. ¶ 54).

On June 18, 2018, the Morris County Prosecutor's Office executed a so-called no knock search warrant at that residence. (Id. ¶ 45). The search revealed assault weapons, suppressors, and large-capacity magazines. (Id. ¶ 74-76, 78).

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On October 23, 2018, Mr. Garcia was indicted on three counts of false representation based on his applications for the Firearms Purchaser Identification Card and handgun-purchase permits. (Id. ¶ 35.) He also was indicted on four counts of unlawful possession of assault firearms, two counts of unlawful possession of firearms suppressors, and sixteen counts of unlawful possession of large-capacity ammunition magazine. (Id. ¶ 44). Finally, he was indicted for endangering the welfare of a child and child neglect. (Id. ¶ 80). This criminal prosecution against the plaintiff is pending in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Morris County, under Docket No. MRS-18-980.

Mr. Garcia contends the search warrant was illegally obtained because ammunition in the photographs can be "used in competitive shooting and/or hunting" and because "anyone over the age of 18" could have purchased the ammunition. (Id. ¶¶ 49, 53.) Therefore, the search warrant was based on nothing more than Buchalski's "naked suspicion" that Mr. Garcia was in possession of assault weapons. (Id. ¶ 54). Mr. Garcia contends his prosecution is wrongful because prosecutors did not present evidence to a grand jury that he had successfully completed his alcoholism treatment, that he was declared fit for duty and capable of carry a weapon, that prosecutors "are incapable of producing sufficient evidence of mens rea," and because the search warrant that led to the weapons-possession charges was illegally obtained. (Id. ¶¶ 36-45.) Mr. Garcia further contends his prosecution is wrongful because he qualifies for a law-enforcement exemption to the weapons charges pursuant to N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-6(a)(7)(a). (Id. ¶ 56.) Mr. Garcia also claims the prosecution of him is the "culmination of targeted harassment and retaliation" by the Wharton Police Department after supervisors there were "[u]nable to achieve their administrative objective of terminating" him after he complained of the Police Department's "violations of departmental policies regarding internal affairs procedures" applied to police officers. (Id. ¶¶ 93-101.)

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B. Procedural History

The Garcias filed this Complaint on September 13, 2019 alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("LAD") and Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") (Count One), the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA") (Count Two), Malicious Prosecution (Count Three), Negligent and/or Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count Five), and Conversion/Replevin (Count Six). (Id. ¶¶ 102-139.)

The Prosecutor Defendants and Rivera filed a Motion to Dismiss in Lieu of Answer on October 18, 2019, seeking to have Counts One and Six dismissed pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for the failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted and on the basis that they have immunity against charges grounded in their roles as prosecutors. (See Defs.' Br. in Support of Mot. (ECF No. 6-1) at 1.) Four days later, the Prosecutor Defendants filed another Motion, seeking the dismissal of Courts Three, Four, and Five, again claiming prosecutorial immunity and the failure to state a claim. (See Defs.' Br. (ECF No. 7-2) at 1.) Both Motions also seek, in the alternative, that the litigation be stayed pending the criminal prosecution against Mr. Garcia. (ECF No. 6-1 at 1; ECF No. 7-2 at 1-2.) The Garcias opposed both Motions. (ECF No. 15.) The Prosecutor Defendants filed Replies for each of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 16, 17.)

Approximately one month later, the Police Defendants filed their Motion, seeking to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim and because they are entitled to qualified immunity. (ECF No. 18.) On January 6, 2020, the Garcias opposed that Motion. (ECF No. 21.) The Police Defendants filed a Reply on January 14, 2020. (ECF No. 22.)


A. Rule 12(b)(1) Standard

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The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandate dismissal of a case when the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). An assertion of Eleventh Amendment immunity is a challenge to a district court's subject-matter jurisdiction. See Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Corp., 77 F.3d 690, 693 n.2 (3d Cir. 1996) ("[T]he Eleventh Amendment is a jurisdictional bar which deprives federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction." (citing Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98-100 (1984)). Typically, when jurisdiction is challenged pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), plaintiff bears the burden of persuading a court subject-matter jurisdiction exists. Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991). However, because "Eleventh Amendment immunity can be expressly waived by a party, or forfeited through non-assertion, it does not implicate federal subject matter jurisdiction in the ordinary sense," and therefore, a party asserting Eleventh Amendment immunity bears the burden of proving its applicability. Christy v. PA Tpk. Comm., 54 F.3d 1140, 1144 (3d Cir. 1994); see also Carter v. City of Philadelphia, 181 F.3d 339, 347 (3d Cir. 1999).

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