Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police

Decision Date22 November 1995
Docket NumberNo. 94-5757,94-5757
Citation71 F.3d 480
PartiesArnold ORSATTI, Jr. and Rebecca Orsatti, Appellees, v. NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE; David V. Brody, Deputy Attorney General of the State of New Jersey; Joseph Guzzardo, New Jersey State Police Officer; Robert Kirvay, New Jersey State Police Officer; Albert Black; and Clinton L. Pagano, Former Superintendent of New Jersey State Police, Robert Kirvay and Joseph Guzzardo, Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Carl Greenberg (argued) and Darryl Beckman, Budd, Larner, Gross, Rosenbaum, Greenberg & Sade, Short Hills, NJ, for Appellant Robert Kirvay.

George F. Kugler (argued) and John C. Connell, Archer & Greiner, Haddonfield, NJ, for Appellant Joseph Guzzardo.

Louis M. Barbone (argued) and Lynn Marie Handler, Jacobs & Barbone, Atlantic City, NJ, for Appellees Arnold Orsatti, Jr. and Rebecca Orsatti.

Before: BECKER and COWEN, Circuit Judges, and LANCASTER, District Judge. 1


LANCASTER, District Judge.

This case arises under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. Plaintiff-appellee, Arnold Orsatti, Jr., alleges that he was arrested without probable cause in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. Defendant-appellants, New Jersey State Police Officers Robert Kirvay and Joseph Guzzardo, appeal from the district court's order denying their joint motion for summary judgment. The officers contend that the district court erred because they are shielded from Orsatti's claim by the doctrine of qualified immunity.

Because we find that the undisputed material facts of record establish that it was objectively reasonable for the officers to conclude that they had probable cause to arrest Orsatti, we hold that the officers are immune from Orsatti's claim. Accordingly, we reverse.


The complete factual and procedural background of this case is considerably more complex than the court's treatment here. What follows, however, are those facts and procedures material to the issue on appeal.

In December of 1988, New Jersey State Police began an investigation, named "Operation Comserv," into alleged bribery, corruption, and other misconduct by Atlantic City, New Jersey public officials. Officers Kirvay and Guzzardo were in charge of the investigation; however, the principal operative was Albert Black, a government confidential informant. The investigation culminated on July 27, 1989, with the arrest of eight individuals, including Orsatti.

Orsatti and the others were arrested pursuant to criminal complaints and warrants issued by the Superior Court of New Jersey. In the aggregate, these criminal complaints alleged a variety of corrupt acts. However, the complaint issued against Orsatti charged him only with official misconduct under N.J.Stat.Ann. 2C:30-2 and conspiracy to commit official misconduct under N.J.Stat.Ann. 2C:5-2, and the complaint related only to his role in attempting to acquire for Black a gift shop concession contract at the Atlantic City Airport. At the time of his arrest, Orsatti was an Atlantic City Councilman and Chairman of the City Council Transportation Committee.

Thereafter, a State Grand Jury returned indictments against each of those arrested. The Grand Jury indicted Orsatti for conspiracy to commit racketeering in violation of N.J.Stat.Ann. 2C:41-2(d) and conspiracy in violation of N.J.Stat.Ann. 2C:5-2. The case against all criminal defendants was called to trial on April 22, 1991. Following the close of the State's case, the trial judge granted a judgment of acquittal to Orsatti and several of the other criminal defendants. Eventually, the jury acquitted all of the remaining criminal defendants, save one, of the charges.

Thereafter, Orsatti filed this civil rights action. Orsatti's complaint is broad in scope and asserts claims under both federal and state law. Moreover, he challenges virtually every aspect of his investigation, arrest, and prosecution, and he names as defendants essentially every individual involved in Operation Comserv. In this appeal, however, we are only concerned with Orsatti's claim that Kirvay and Guzzardo violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures. Specifically, Orsatti alleged that the officers carried out Operation Comserv in a negligent and incompetent manner. Orsatti further alleged that the officers had neither probable cause to arrest him, nor an objective good faith belief that he was guilty of the offense charged.

At the close of discovery, Kirvay and Guzzardo filed a joint motion for summary judgment contending that they are entitled to judgment on Orsatti's unlawful arrest claim under the doctrine of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion and held that whether the officers were entitled to immunity rested upon disputed questions of fact that the jury had to resolve. This appeal followed.


We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1291 to review an order denying a claim of immunity raised by a defendant in a motion for summary judgment. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 524-30, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2814-18, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). The standard of review applicable to an order denying summary judgment is plenary, Bixler v. Central Pa. Teamsters Health & Welfare Fund, 12 F.3d 1292, 1297 (3d Cir.1993), and "[o]n review, the appellate court is required to apply the same test the district court should have utilized initially." Goodman v. Mead Johnson & Co., 534 F.2d 566, 573 (3d Cir.1976).

Summary judgment may be granted if, drawing all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

An otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by the mere existence of some factual dispute between the parties. However, a dispute over those facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law, i.e., the material facts, will preclude the entry of summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Similarly, summary judgment is improper so long as the dispute over the material facts is genuine. In determining whether the dispute is genuine, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter, but only to determine whether the evidence of record is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.


Kirvay and Guzzardo argue that the district court erred in denying their joint motion for summary judgment. They contend that they are immune from Orsatti's suit because the undisputed material facts of record establish that they were objectively reasonable in concluding that probable cause existed to arrest Orsatti for the crime of official misconduct. We agree.

The general principles of law that govern this case are well settled. Broadly stated, the Fourth Amendment prohibits a police officer from arresting a citizen except upon probable cause. Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 169, 92 S.Ct. 839, 847, 31 L.Ed.2d 110 (1972). Probable cause to arrest requires more than mere suspicion however, it does not require that the officer have evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See United States v. Glasser, 750 F.2d 1197, 1205 (3d Cir.1984). Rather, probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested. United States v. Cruz, 910 F.2d 1072, 1076 (3d Cir.1990) (citing Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 208 n. 9, 99 S.Ct. 2248, 2254, n. 9, 60 L.Ed.2d 824 (1979)). When a police officer does arrest a person without probable cause, the officer may be liable in a civil rights suit for damages. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967).

Nevertheless, "government officials performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). Government officials, such as police officers, are accorded qualified rather than absolute immunity in order to accommodate two important interests: the officials' interest in performing their duties without the fear of constantly defending themselves against insubstantial claims for damages, and the public's interest in recovering damages when government officials unreasonably invade or violate individual rights under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3039, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987).

Because the qualified immunity doctrine provides the official with immunity from suit, not simply trial, Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 113 S.Ct. 684, 121 L.Ed.2d 605 (1993), the district court should resolve any immunity question at the earliest possible stage of the litigation. Creighton, 483 U.S. at 646 n. 6, 107 S.Ct. at 3042 n. 6. When the material facts are not in dispute, the district court may decide whether a government official is shielded by qualified immunity as a matter of law. Id.

Typically, the dispositive issue in these types of cases is whether the right at issue was "clearly established" at the time the official acted. In this case, however, there is no question that the right at issue, namely, the right to be free from arrest except on probable cause,...

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