Panarello v. City of Vineland

Decision Date08 February 2016
Docket NumberCivil. No. 12-4165 (RBK/JS)
Citation160 F.Supp.3d 734
Parties John Panarello and Sheri Panarello, Plaintiffs, v. City of Vineland, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

Louis P. McFadden, Jr., McFadden Law Firm, Northfield, NJ, for Plaintiff.

Michael E. Benson, Buonadonna & Benson, Justin Robert White, Testa Heck Scrocca & Testa, PA, Carlos Andujar, Jr., Law Office of Carlos Andujar Jr., Vineland, NJ, for Defendants.


KUGLER, United State District Judge:

This civil rights suit arises from a series of disputes between Plaintiff John Panarello (Panarello) and his wife, Plaintiff Sheri Panarello1 (collectively, Plaintiffs) and their neighbors, Defendant Detective Antonio “Pete” Ramos (“Ramos”) and his wife, Defendant Jeanne Ramos (collectively, the “Ramos Defendants) that eventually escalated to the point where Panarello was arrested on July 7, 2010. Plaintiffs allege that the situation surrounding Panarello's arrest and subsequent prosecution was a violation of Panarello's constitutional rights. Plaintiffs have brought claims against the Ramos Defendants as well as the City of Vineland (the City), Chief of Police Timothy Codispotti (the “Chief” or “Codispotti”), and Sergeant Jeffrey Riggione (“Riggione”) (collectively, the “Municipal Defendants) and four individual police officers—Adam Shaw, Matthew Laielli, Brian Armstrong, and James Day (collectively, the “Officer Defendants).2

Presently before the Court are the Municipal Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (“Municipal Defendants' Motion” or “Muni. Defs.' Mot.”) [Dkt. No. 163f], the Officer Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (“Officer Defendants' Motion” or “Off. Defs.' Mot.”) [Dkt. No. 164]; and Plaintiffs' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Plaintiffs' Cross Motion or “Pls.' Cross Mot.”) [Dkt. No. 166]. For the reasons that follow, the Municipal Defendants' Motion is GRANTED-IN-PART AND DENIED-IN-PART , the Officer Defendants' Motion is GRANTED-IN-PART AND DENIED-IN-PART , and the Plaintiffs' Motion is DENIED .

A. Panarello's Arrest on July 7, 2010

The basic background facts of the events leading up to Panarello's arrest on July 7, 2010 are undisputed, as are the events until any police officer crossed the property line onto Plaintiffs' property. These facts are recited concisely by the Officer Defendants and have been adopted by the Plaintiffs. (See Pls.' Responsive SMF [Dkt. No. 166–1] at 2 (“Specifically, Plaintiffs agree with the following initial paragraphs and statements ....”).)

Plaintiffs John and Sheri Panarello, husband and wife, resided at 57 Yelkca Avenue in Vineland, New Jersey. They lived in an unremarkable, quiet residential area. Their neighbors at 59 Yelkca were Antonio “Pete” Ramos and his wife, Jeanne Ramos. Pete Ramos was (and is) a police officer with the Vineland Police Department.
Beginning in the fall of 2009, the Ramos Family and Panarello Family became engaged in a series of petty and borderline ridiculous disputes. They bickered over pets, the installation of a privacy fence, noise, and each accused the other of engaging in obnoxious activity. It seems that Pete and John both had knack for getting under the skin of the other.
On July 7, 2010, there was a confrontation between John Panarello and his neighbor Antonio “Pete” Ramos. Panarello was using a weed whacker to trim vegetation growing along the Panarello and Ramos property line. Pete Ramos was outside cleaning his swimming pool. Ramos accused Panarello of knocking weeds and debris into his pool. For whatever reason, Ramos shot a stream of water over the fence towards John Panarello. Panarello and Ramos—separated by the fences—then exchanged words and cursed at each other.
Rather than simply walking away, Panarello instead grabbed a wooden board that was on the ground nearby. He raised the board and smacked it on the top the privacy fence. From his side of the fence, Ramos grabbed one end of the board. On the other side of the fence, Panarello gripped the other end of the board. The two men then struggled for control over the board.
Panarello was able to pull the board back onto his side of the fence. He stepped back, and waited. He thought that Ramos might try to come over the fence. Ramos never did come over the fence. ...
Jeanne Ramos saw the confrontation between her husband and John Panarello. She called the police and reported to a Sergeant that John Panarello attempted to strike her husband with a board. Officer Matthew Laielli was ordered to Yelkca Avenue. Officer Laielli was told that an assault had just occurred.
Once at the scene, Officer Laielli went and spoke with Pete and Jeanne Ramos. Antonio “Pete” Ramos reported to Officer Laielli that the neighbor, John Panarello, tried “hitting them with a board.” Likewise, Jeanne Ramos reported to Officer Laielli that the neighbor, John Panarello, tried “hitting them with a board.”
After hearing their side of the story, Officer Laielli then left Pete and Jeanne Ramos to go get John Panarello's version of events. Laielli was accompanied by Officer Adam Shaw. Elsewhere in the vicinity was Officer Brian Armstrong, who was trying to locate John Panarello. None of the young officers knew John or Sheri Panarello.

(Pls.' Responsive SMF at 2–3 (quoting Off. Defs.' Mot. Br. [Dkt. No. 164–1] at 1–2).)

Officers Laielli and Shaw then proceeded to the Plaintiffs property to try and locate Panarello, and walked up Plaintiffs' driveway. (Off. Defs.' SMF [Dkt. No. 164–3] ¶ 56.) While on the driveway, Officer Laielli spotted Panarello in his backyard, and called out to him, “Yo, I need to talk to you.” (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 59–60; Pls.' Cross Mot. SMF [Dkt. No. 166–1] ¶¶ 27–28.) At this point, Panarello turned and moved away from the officers. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 61; Pls.' Responsive SMF ¶ 61.) Officers Laielli and Shaw both believed that Panarello may be retreating into his home to obtain a weapon, and also believed that Panarello was at that moment committing the crime of obstruction, and so went into the backyard to detain and arrest Panarello. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 63–64, 68, 76–80, 99, 104–05.) Officer Laielli grabbed Planarello around the waist right around the threshold to the back door of the house, and the two tumbled into the house. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 86; Pls.' Responsive SMF ¶ 86.) Officer Shaw followed Officer Laielli and assisted in placing Panarello under arrest. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 90, 108.)

The parties disagree entirely as to what happened within the house beyond the fact that Panarello was arrested and was struck by Officers Laielli and Shaw. The Officer Defendants submit that Panarello was fighting with Officers Laielli and Shaw, and that they both struck him because of his acts of resisting arrest. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 109–14.) Plaintiffs counter that the Officer Defendants purposely struck him while he was restrained in order to beat him. (Pls.' Responsive SMF at 12–13.) Plaintiffs also submit that the Vineland Police Department (“VPD”), under the direction of Sergeant Riggione, failed to adequately preserve video evidence of the incident. (See Pls.' Cross Mot. SMF ¶¶ 59–69). The Municipal Defendants and Officer Defendants dispute this.

Panarello was then taken to a patrol car so that Officer Armstrong could transport him to the police station. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 118; Pls.' Responsive SMF at 14.) Officer Armstrong called for EMS to meet him at the police station to tend to Panarello's injuries. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 119.) Plaintiffs then argue that Officer Armstrong, having placed Panarello unrestrained in the backseat, stopped and accelerated abruptly to cause Panarello additional injuries. (Pls.' Responsive SMF at 14). Officer Armstrong disputes this version of events.

Upon arrival at the police station, Officer Day met Panarello and Officer Armstrong. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 121–22.) The parties agree that while in the police station, Officer Day used oleoresin capcisum (“OC”) spray, also known as pepper spray, on Panarello. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 127; Pls.' Responsive SMF at 15.) The parties dispute everything else pertaining to the circumstances leading up to the use of the OC spray and the subsequent remedial actions the police officers may or may not have taken. At a certain point, an EMS worker tried to assist Panarello, and Panarello spit blood on her. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 133.)4

B. Criminal Proceedings

Multiple criminal charges were filed against Panarello as a result of the July 7, 2010 incident—two counts of assault on a police officer, one count of assault on an EMS worker, one count of aggravated assault, one count of resisting arrest, one count of obstruction, and two weapons possession counts. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 134–40.) Panarello subsequently filed two criminal complaints against Officers Laielli and Shaw for assaulting him. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 141.)5 The charges were all downgraded to disorderly persons offenses and remanded to Municipal Court. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 142.)

A trial was held on the charges against all three defendants—Panarello, Officer Laielli, and Officer Shaw—and the Honorable William J. Golden, J.M.C., entered judgment convicting Panarello of resisting arrest in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29–2a and assault on the EMT who came to treat him in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12–1b(5)(c). See Trial Decision Tr., State v. Panarello (Glassboro Muni. Ct. Sept. 26, 2013) (Muni. Defs.' Ex. K; Off. Defs.' Ex. R). Panarello appealed his conviction for resisting arrest to the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 179.) The Honorable Kevin T. Smith, J.S.C., entered judgment affirming the conviction. See Order Aff'g Conviction, State v. Panarello , Muni. Appeal No. A–28–13 (N.J.Super.Ct. Law Div. June 24, 2014) (Muni. Defs.' Ex. L; Off. Defs.' Ex. S).

C. Civil Proceedings

Plaintiffs filed a tort claims notice on or about September 30, 2010. (Off. Defs.' SMF ¶ 183.) Plaintiffs subsequently filed this action on July 9,...

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