Palma v. Atlantic County, Civ. A. No. 98-1971.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtOrlofsky
Citation53 F.Supp.2d 743
PartiesDennis A. PALMA, Plaintiff, v. ATLANTIC COUNTY, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 98-1971.
Decision Date15 June 1999

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53 F.Supp.2d 743
Dennis A. PALMA, Plaintiff,
v.
ATLANTIC COUNTY, et al., Defendants.
Civ. A. No. 98-1971.
United States District Court, D. New Jersey.
June 15, 1999.

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Thomas J. Gosse, Haddon Heights, NJ, for Plaintiff, Dennis A. Palma.

Paul J. Gallagher, County Counsel, Diane M. Ruberton, Assistant County Counsel, Atlantic City, NJ, for Defendants, Atlantic County, Atlantic County Sheriff's Department, James McGettigan, Jane Bentley, Roy C. Trotta, Jean Santora, and Raymond C. Coleman.

OPINION

ORLOFSKY, District Judge.


This civil rights suit alleging claims for the violation of Plaintiff's First, Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights requires the Court to address several difficult issues of law which are unresolved in this District. First, I must determine the appropriate legal standard to be applied to a claim for post-conviction malicious prosecution in the wake of the Third Circuit's decision in Torres v. McLaughlin, 163 F.3d 169 (3d Cir.1998). Second, in considering the allegedly perjured grand jury testimony of a police officer testifying as a complaining witness, I must reconcile the Third Circuit's holding in Williams v. Hepting, 844 F.2d 138 (3d Cir.1988), extending absolute witness immunity to pretrial hearings, with the United States Supreme Court's decision in Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986), holding that police officers acting as complaining witnesses are only entitled to qualified, and not absolute, immunity. Third, in determining whether Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's First Amendment claim for retaliatory prosecution, I must apply the objective reasonableness standard of the defense of qualified immunity to the wholly subjective element of Defendants' retaliatory motive as required by the Third Circuit in Larsen v. Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 154 F.3d 82 (3d Cir.1998).

On August 3, 1998, Plaintiff, Dennis A. Palma ("Palma"), filed an Amended Complaint alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his First, Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as a litany of state common law causes of action. Palma's claims arise out of his arrest, detention and prosecution for referring to himself as the "Unabomber" while entering the Atlantic County Courthouse, located in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, asserting numerous defenses to Palma's federal claims, including the existence of probable cause, respondeat superior liability, failure to establish municipal liability, absolute immunity and qualified immunity. The

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Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.1

For the reasons set forth below, first, I conclude that, to state a claim for post-conviction malicious prosecution, a Plaintiff must allege: (a) the initiation of a criminal proceeding; (b) a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment; (c) lack of probable cause; and (d) termination of the criminal proceeding in the plaintiff's favor. Second, I conclude that the Third Circuit's extension of absolute witness immunity applies to adversarial pretrial hearings only, and not to grand jury proceedings. Thus, under Malley, a police officer testifying as a complaining witness before a grand jury is entitled only to qualified, and not absolute immunity from civil liability for his or her allegedly perjured grand jury testimony. Third, given that the Third Circuit has recognized that applying the objective reasonableness standard of the qualified immunity defense to the subjective motivation element of a claim for retaliation "cannot properly be resolved on the face of the pleadings," Larsen, 154 F.3d at 94, I shall deny Defendants' motion without prejudice and permit the parties to conduct discovery limited to the issue of Defendants' "true motive[,]" Id., as well as the related issue of whether Defendants could have reasonably, but mistakenly believed that probable cause existed to arrest, detain and prosecute Palma.

Accordingly, I shall grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion to dismiss. Specifically, I shall dismiss Palma's Eighth Amendment claim for cruel and unusual punishment because he has failed to allege a cognizable violation of the Eighth Amendment. I shall, however, deny Defendants' motion to dismiss Palma's Fourth Amendment claims because he has sufficiently alleged the existence of grand jury irregularity in the filing of the indictment in his criminal prosecution.

In addition, I shall deny Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint on the basis of respondeat superior liability and failure to establish municipal liability because Palma has sufficiently alleged the personal involvement and knowing acquiescence of the defendant supervisory officials, and has alleged the existence of a "policy" of the County and Sheriff's Department responsible for the deprivation of his constitutional rights. Furthermore, I shall grant Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint against Defendant, Bentley, to the extent that Palma seeks to hold her liable for her allegedly perjured trial testimony because she is absolutely immune from civil liability. With regard to her allegedly perjured grand jury testimony, however, I shall deny Defendants' motion because I conclude that police officers testifying as complaining witnesses before a grand jury are only entitled to qualified, and not absolute immunity.

Finally, I shall deny without prejudice Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint against the defendant Sheriff Officers on the basis of qualified immunity, and permit Defendants to renew their motion after a period of discovery limited to the issues of the defendant Sheriff Officers' true motive in arresting, detaining and prosecuting Palma, and whether these defendants could have reasonably believed that probable cause existed for their actions.

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I. BACKGROUND

On August 3, 1998, Palma filed a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 19832 against Defendants, Atlantic County; the Atlantic County Sheriff's Department ("Sheriff's Department"); James McGettigan, the Atlantic County Sheriff ("McGettigan"); Sheriff's Officer Jane Bentley ("Bentley"), Sheriff's Officer Roy C. Trotta ("Trotta"), Sheriff's Sergeant Jean Santora ("Santora"), Sheriff's Lieutenant Raymond C. Coleman ("Coleman," collectively "Defendants"), and John Does 1-10, officers and supervisors of the Atlantic County Sheriff's Department. See Amended Complaint (filed Aug. 3, 1998). In the Amended Complaint, Palma alleges that Defendants "deprived [him] of rights secured ... by the Constitution of the United States, including ... his First Amendment right to freedom of expression, his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure of his person and property, his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process of law, ... [and] his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel [and] unusual punishment...." See Amended Compl., ¶ 34. In addition, Palma alleges the following state law causes of action against Defendants: "perjury, false arrest and imprisonment, assault and battery, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, prima facia [sic] tort, conspiracy tort, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, and outrageous conduct under the laws of the State of New Jersey." See id., ¶ 39. Palma also seeks attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.3 See id., ¶ 34.

The events giving rise to this case took place on April 26, 1996, at the Atlantic County Courthouse. See Amended Compl., ¶ 13. On that date, Palma entered the Atlantic County Courthouse "to prosecute pro se, a Special Civil Part Complaint." Id. "As part of the proofs in his Special Civil Part case, [Palma] brought to the courthouse a water filtration system which he had placed in a cardboard box." Id.

To enter the courthouse, Palma had to proceed through a security check point. See id., ¶ 14. "As [Palma] entered the initial checkpoint in the foyer of the courthouse, [Sheriff's Officer] Bentley asked [Palma] what he had in [the cardboard] box." Id. Palma "voluntarily handed the box to ... Bentley ... and said to her in a joking manner, `What do I look like, the Unabomber. [sic]'" Id., ¶ 15 (additional quotations omitted). Bentley "inspected the contents of the ... [cardboard] box, told [Palma] he should not be talking like that around the courthouse, handed the box back to [him], [and] gave [him] directions to the courtroom ... where his Special Civil Part action was scheduled to begin...." Id., ¶ 16.

Palma entered the courtroom and remained there "awaiting ... his trial for approximately 45 minutes when [Sheriff's Officer] Trotta entered the courtroom and told [Palma] he wanted to speak to him outside." See Amended Compl., ¶ 17. Outside the courtroom, Trotta and Sheriff's Officer Santora "seized [Palma] and

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escorted him to the Sheriff's Office." Id., ¶ 18.

"At the Sheriff's office, [] Bentley arrested [Palma]...." Id., ¶ 19. Palma alleges that Defendants, Bentley, Trotta, Santora, and Coleman, "searched [Palma], fingerprinted him, photographed him, detained him, and seized the [cardboard box] he had brought to the courthouse to present in his Special Civil Part case." Id.

Subsequently, Bentley "signed [criminal] complaints against [Palma] charging him with two indictable offenses, a third degree Terroristic Threat in violation of [N.J. Stat. Ann. § ] 2C:12-3a[,] and one count of Creating a False Public Alarm, a third degree offense, in violation of [N.J. Stat. Ann. §] 2C:33-3."4 See Amended Compl.,...

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58 practice notes
  • In re Daniels, Bankruptcy No. 03-10845 SR.
    • United States
    • United States Bankruptcy Courts. Third Circuit. U.S. Bankruptcy Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania
    • July 16, 2003
    ...Circuit has "leaned" strongly in favor of applying 8(a)'s liberal pleading rule to all § 1983 claims. See Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 756-57 (D.N.J.1999) (collecting A more compelling reason, however, is the Supreme Court's recent reiteration of the reasoning which undergird......
  • Garlanger v. Verbeke, Civil Action No. 01-3574 (SSB).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • September 27, 2002
    ...must likewise allege that Defendants initiated criminal proceedings against him without probable cause. See Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 755 (D.N.J. 1999) (Orlofsky, J.). More specifically, Plaintiff must allege that: "(1) defendants initiated a criminal proceeding against [h......
  • In re Bayside Prison Litigation, Civil Action No. 97-5127.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Jersey
    • March 13, 2002
    ...Circuit has "leaned" strongly in favor of applying 8(a)'s liberal pleading rule to all § 1983 claims. See Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 756-57 (D.N.J. 1999) (collecting Page 764 A more compelling reason, however, is the Supreme Court's recent reiteration of the reasoning which......
  • Santiago v. City of Vineland, No. 97-5110.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • August 2, 2000
    ...for false arrest, a plaintiff must establish that he was arrested by a state actor without probable cause. See Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 755 (D.N.J.1999)(Orlofsky, J.)(citing Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 817-18 (3d Cir. 1997)). Under New Jersey law, the plaintiff need......
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59 cases
  • Garlanger v. Verbeke, Civil Action No. 01-3574 (SSB).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • September 27, 2002
    ...must likewise allege that Defendants initiated criminal proceedings against him without probable cause. See Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 755 (D.N.J. 1999) (Orlofsky, J.). More specifically, Plaintiff must allege that: "(1) defendants initiated a criminal proceeding against [h......
  • Russoli v. Salisbury Tp., Civil Action No. 98-2688.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • October 20, 2000
    ...and (iii) the defendant's action effectively chilled the exercise of the plaintiff's First Amendment rights. Palma v. Atlantic Co., 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 752 (D.N.J.1999); cf. Larsen v. Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 154 F.3d 82, 94 (3d Cir.1998) (plaintiff must allege that the Fir......
  • In re Daniels, Bankruptcy No. 03-10845 SR.
    • United States
    • United States Bankruptcy Courts. Third Circuit. U.S. Bankruptcy Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania
    • July 16, 2003
    ...Circuit has "leaned" strongly in favor of applying 8(a)'s liberal pleading rule to all § 1983 claims. See Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 756-57 (D.N.J.1999) (collecting A more compelling reason, however, is the Supreme Court's recent reiteration of the reasoning which undergird......
  • Cignetti v. Healy, CIV. A. 96-11427-MEL.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • March 21, 2000
    ...prosecution by giving false testimony at either a grand jury proceeding or preliminary hearing); see also Palma v. Atlantic County, 53 F.Supp.2d 743 (adopting complaining witness exception as to testimony before a grand jury but not to testimony in adversarial preliminary hearings). But see......
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