Lankford v. City of Clifton Police Dep't

Decision Date29 June 2021
Docket NumberCiv. No. 18-6643 (KM)(CLW)
Citation546 F.Supp.3d 296
Parties Jaquice LANKFORD, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF CLIFTON POLICE DEPARTMENT; Officer Alan Fiorilla; Officer Thomas Buell; Officer Andrew Alvarez; Officer Juan Velez; John Does 1-10, Sued Individually and in Their Official Capacities, Defendants
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

Ronald C. Hunt, Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, Newark, NJ, for Plaintiff.

Thomas M. Egan, City of Clifton Law Department, Clifton, NJ, for Defendant Clifton Police Department.

Joseph T. Afflitto, Jr., Afflitto Raimondi & Afflitto Esqs., Wasyne, NJ, for Defendant Officer Alan Alan Fiorilla.

Donald S. Dedio, Dwyer Connell & Lisbona, Fairfield, NJ, for Defendant Officer Thomas Buell.

Patrick J. Caserta, Patrick J. Caserta, Esq., L.L.C., Woodland Park, NJ, for Defendant Officer Andrew Alverez.

Nicholas A. Grieco, Inglesino Webster Wyciskala & Taylor, LLC, Parsippany, NJ, for Defendant Officer Juan Velez.

KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.:1

This is a civil rights case. Plaintiff Jaquice2 Lankford claims that officers of the City of Clifton police department used excessive force when they struck him with batons during his arrest. Against the individual officers Mr. Lankford asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming false arrest, false imprisonment, excessive force, deprivation of property without due process, and a taking of property without just compensation. Against the City of Clifton Police Department (the "Police Department"),3 he brings claims pursuant to § 1983 for failure to property train and supervise the individual defendants. He also appears to be bringing certain common law claims as well.4

The City of Clifton and Officer Thomas Buell now move for summary judgment against Mr. Lankford's claims. I GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART the motions for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Facts

. The following are the facts forth in the parties’ submissions. Where relevant factual disputes exist, they are noted.

Jacquice Lankford was driving in Clifton, New Jersey on April 16, 2016. (Buell SOMF ¶ 1.) Mr. Lankford's car bore a temporary New Jersey license plate. (Id. ) Sergeant Alan Fiorilla of the Clifton Police Department was on patrol in the area at the time. (Id. ¶ 2.) Mr. Lankford pulled into a gas station and Sergeant Fiorilla followed him. (Id. ¶ 3.)

The parties dispute why Sergeant Fiorilla followed Mr. Lankford into the police station. According to Sergeant Fiorilla, Mr. Lankford's temporary license tag appeared to be fraudulent. (Id. ) The Sergeant radioed dispatch with registration information for Mr. Lankford's vehicle and learned that the temporary plate was for a 2016 Toyota RAV4, not the 2004 Mercedes E-320 that Mr. Lankford was driving. (Id. ) Mr. Lankford counters that Sergeant Fiorilla did not follow him to investigate his license plate, but rather because he had racially profiled Mr. Lankford. (Pl.’s RSOMF Buell ¶ 3.)

Sergeant Fiorilla parked his car at the gas station and approached Mr. Lankford's vehicle. (Buell SOMF ¶ 4.) Mr. Lankford had the hood of his vehicle up and was standing near the front, speaking to the gas station attendant. (Id. ) Sergeant Fiorilla asked Mr. Lankford for his driving credentials, and Mr. Lankford asked why and if he had done anything wrong. (Id. ) Sergeant Fiorilla claims to have told Mr. Lankford that he was stopping him for a traffic violation and said that he would explain after Mr. Lankford produced his credentials. (Id. ) Mr. Lankford claims that Sergeant Fiorilla never mentioned any traffic violation. (Pl.’s RSOMF Buell ¶ 4.)

Mr. Lankford took out his phone and said that he was going to record the encounter. (Buell SOMF ¶ 5.) Sergeant Fiorilla claims that he asked Mr. Lankford to return to his car, and Mr. Lankford refused. (Id. ) Sergeant Fiorilla then repeated his request and Mr. Lankford refused again. (Id. ) Mr. Lankford, for his part, states that Sergeant Fiorilla never asked him to return to his vehicle. (Pl.’s RSOMF Buell ¶ 5.) Mr. Lankford then began to back away. (Buell SOMF ¶ 5.) Sergeant Fiorilla grabbed Mr. Lankford's right arm to guide him back to the vehicle, and Mr. Lankford pulled away and attempted to return to his vehicle. (Id. ) Sergeant Fiorilla told Mr. Lankford he was under arrest, and Mr. Lankford continued to attempt to pull away. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 13)

Sergeant Fiorilla warned Mr. Lankford that he was going to use pepper spray. (Id. ¶ 6.) Mr. Lankford covered his face. (Id. ) Fiorilla then took Mr. Lankford to the ground and commanded him to stop resisting. (Id. ) Sergeant Fiorilla attempted to gain control of Mr. Lankford's hands, which were underneath Lankford's body as he was lying face down, and Lankford refused to produce them. (Id. ) Sergeant Fiorilla claims that he sought to control Mr. Lankford's hands because he was concerned that Lankford had a weapon. (Id. ) According to a witness at the scene, Sergeant Fiorilla was screaming "give me your phone, give me your phone." (Pl.’s SOMF ¶ 12.) Both parties agree that this situation resulted in a stalemate which persisted for approximately 10 minutes, during which Mr. Lankford remained face down on the ground with his hands beneath him while Sergeant Fiorilla sat on top of him and sought to gain control of his hands. (Id. )

The parties dispute what happened next. According to Officer Buell, he arrived at the scene, approached Mr. Lankford and Sergeant Fiorilla, and unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of Mr. Lankford's right hand by pulling at his arm. (Buell SOMF ¶ 7.) Officers Juan Velez and Andrew Alvarez then arrived at the scene. (Id. ) The officers ordered Mr. Lankford to stop resisting and display his hands, which he refused to do. (Id. ) Officers Alvarez and Velez then struck Mr. Lankford on the legs with their batons, after which Mr. Lankford surrendered his hands and was handcuffed. (Id. ) Officer Buell then transported Mr. Lankford to the Clifton Police Department Headquarters. (Id. ) This version of events is supported by use of force reports prepared by Fiorilla, Alvarez and Velez.

Mr. Lankford acknowledges that he has no personal knowledge as to the identity of the officers at the scene or which officers struck him. (Id. ¶ 14.) He does, however, offer a different account of what occurred, based on a statement by an eyewitness bystander named Lindsey Fuchs Kennedy. (Pl.’s SOMF ¶ 11.) According to Ms. Kennedy, after the 10-minute stalemate between Sergeant Fiorilla and Mr. Lankford, Officer Alvarez arrived at the gas station, immediately got out of his car, took out a baton, and began to strike Mr. Lankford. (Pl.’s SOMF ¶ 13; Pl.’s Buell RSOMF ¶ 16.) A second police cruiser driven by Officer Buell then arrived. (Pl.’s SOMF ¶ 15.) Officer Buell got out of his car, spoke with the other officers, then walked to Mr. Lankford, who was lying still on the ground with Sergeant Fiorilla on top of him. Buell pulled out his baton, and struck Mr. Lankford three times. (Id. ¶ 16.) Mr. Lankford then stopped resisting and was placed under arrest. (Id. ) As will be discussed in greater detail below, Ms. Kennedy did not actually identify any officer by name—Mr. Lankford infers this order of arrival based on Ms. Kennedy's description of the officers’ appearances.

According to Mr. Lankford, he had no knowledge that the license plate was fake and knew nothing about its origins. (Buell SOMF ¶ 9.) He explained that he did not want to produce his driver's license to Sergeant Lankford because his license was suspended at the time of the incident due to outstanding child support obligations. (Id. )

Mr. Lankford explained that he stopped at the gas station in order to check the car's oil because the oil sensor light had switched on. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff recalls that he had walked to a vending machine to get some snacks and was returning when he was approached by Sergeant Fiorilla. (Id. ¶ 11.) He claims that he put his hands in the air and kept them there as Sergeant Fiorilla became hostile and approached him. (Id. ¶ 12.) He acknowledges that Sergeant Fiorilla asked for his documents three times and that he continually asked Fiorilla why he had been stopped. (Id. ) He also acknowledges that he did not follow Sergeant Fiorilla's commands to give up his hands once he was on the ground. (Id. ¶ 13.)

Sergeant Fiorilla confirms that he was on top of Mr. Lankford and trying to gain control of his hands when Officer Buell arrived. (Id. ¶ 15.) He also confirms that Officers Alvarez and Velez used baton strikes to Mr. Lankford's lower legs to gain control of his hands. (Id. ¶ 16.) Officer Alvarez states that he struck Mr. Lankford with a baton approximately three or four times on the shin while the officers were yelling commands to Mr. Lankford. (Id. ¶ 17.) Officer Alvarez does not recall if Officer Velez struck Mr. Lankford, but Officer Velez acknowledged using his baton on Mr. Lankford in his use of force report submitted in connection with the incident. (Id. ; DE 40-5 at 4 (Use of Force Report, Officer Juan Velez).)

Mr. Lankford claims that Officer Buell then took him to police headquarters. (Pl.’s SOMF ¶ 20.) He claims that on the way to the station and while in police headquarters, Officer Buell began to call him racial epithets, including "blackass" and the n-word. (Id. ¶ 21–22.) Officer Buell then walked Mr. Lankford to a holding cell, and Mr. Lankford's legs were bleeding. (Id. ¶ 23.) Mr. Lankford asked to go to the hospital and Officer Buell responded "You're a fuckin asshole, you'll be alright." (Id. ¶ 24.) Mr. Lankford was taken to the hospital, however, after officers noticed a pool of blood emanating from his legs and clothes. (Id. ¶ 25.)

The Honorable J.M.C. Abdelmajeid Abdelhadi of Paterson Municipal Court found that Mr. Lankford's stop was unlawful because Sergeant Fiorilla lacked reasonable suspicion of a motor vehicle infraction or criminal conduct. (Pl.’s SOMF ¶ 6.) The Judge dismissed all charges. (Id. ) In state court, Sergeant Fiorilla testified that he observed Mr....

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