Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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This appeal concerns the applicability of qualified immunity to a claim brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), N.J.S.A.10:6-1 to -2, against a police detective named in his individual and official capacity. Plaintiff Denise Brown filed suit claiming her state constitutional rights were violated in 2008 when a State Police officer accompanied her into her apartment, without a warrant and without her consent, in order to secure the premises while awaiting the issuance of a search warrant. Victims claimed two men with handguns forcibly entered a home, stole jewelry and other belongings, and fled in a blue BMW. Plaintiff loaned her blue BMW to her boyfriend, Carlos Thomas. Thomas was ultimately charged in connection with his alleged involvement in the home invasion. A State Police representative notified plaintiff of Thomas’s arrest and that the State Police had her vehicle. They searched plaintiff’s car and found contraband, a gun holster, and other items, including jewelry, linking the car to the home invasion. During the investigation, State Police received a tip that Thomas had given plaintiff a locket reported as stolen during the break-in. As a result, the police determined the investigation should include a search of plaintiff’s home. A detective explained to plaintiff that if she refused consent, he would then proceed to seek a search warrant, securing the premises in the interim by either preventing her from entering the home or allowing her access, accompanied by police, to prevent loss or destruction of evidence. Given the options, plaintiff declined to grant consent and refused to allow the officers to secure the apartment from outside. The parties agreed there was probable cause to believe that plaintiff had evidence in her home and, in fact, a search warrant was obtained later that day. The State moved to dismiss, using qualified immunity as grounds. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined a law enforcement officer, without a warrant and without consent, may not lawfully insist on entering a residence based on an assertion that exigent circumstances require the dwelling to be secured. However, in light of the circumstances of this case, the police did not violate a clearly established right when entering the home to secure it. Qualified immunity applied. View "Brown v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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At about 8:30 p.m. on December 15, 2010, Monmouth County Sheriff's Officers Alexander Torres and Thomas Ruocco arrived at a Matawan address to execute a child-support warrant on plaintiff Eric Morillo. While Torres went to knock on the front door, Ruocco went around the side of the home and discovered plaintiff sitting in an idling car parked in the driveway of the listed address. Although the car's engine was running, its headlights were off. As Ruocco approached the car, he observed plaintiff in the passenger seat smoking what appeared to Ruocco to be marijuana. Ruocco asked plaintiff if he had any other drugs on him; plaintiff told Ruocco that he was carrying a loaded weapon tucked in the right side of the waistband of his pants. Ruocco seized the weapon and called Torres on his hand-held radio to come and assist. Plaintiff and his companion were removed from the vehicle and patted down. Plaintiff was arrested on the child-support warrant. While still at the scene, Ruocco phoned his supervisor, Sergeant Steven Cooper, to alert him to the circumstances involved in executing the warrant and the seizure of the weapon. Although Ruocco did not ask plaintiff at the scene whether he had a permit to carry the gun, while en route to police headquarters, plaintiff informed the officers that the handgun was registered to him and that he had paperwork for it. Plaintiff told the officers that he was involved in gang activity and was carrying the handgun because he feared retaliation. Plaintiff posted bail on the child-support warrant. Plaintiff was later charged with unlawful possession of a handgun. After receiving confirmation from the New Jersey State Police that plaintiff's handgun had been purchased with the proper registration, the weapons charge was dropped. Plaintiff filed a complaint against Ruocco, Torres, and Cooper, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C.A. 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (CRA). He alleged that they violated his constitutional rights by wrongfully charging him with unlawful possession of a weapon, which led to his incarceration until bail was posted. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment as to liability. Defendants filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity and seeking dismissal of the action. The trial court denied defendants motion for summary judgment, deeming it impermissible for plaintiff to be charged with unlawful possession of a weapon because the gun he carried was lawfully registered to him and he was at his present residence when he was found carrying the weapon. After several motions to stay the proceedings and motions for leave to appeal, the matter came before the Appellate Division, which affirmed the trial court's judgment. Both plaintiff and defendants appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court denied plaintiff s motion for leave to appeal, but granted defendants motion for leave to appeal the Appellate Division's judgment that affirmed the denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity. After review of the facts of this case, the Supreme Court concluded that the civil rights causes of action against the officers should have been dismissed based on the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. View "Morillo v. Monmouth County Sheriff Officers" on Justia Law

Posted in: Civil Rights

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In this case, a city clerk in a Faulkner Act municipality refused to accept for filing a petition for referendum on the ground that the petition did not have a sufficient number of qualifying signatures. Members of a Committee of Petitioners brought an action in lieu of prerogative writ to have the challenged ordinance put on the ballot. They also brought suit under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c). Ultimately, the trial court granted the Committee members the relief they sought, placing the ordinance before the voters and awarding them, as the prevailing party, attorney’s fees for the deprivation of a substantive right protected by the Civil Rights Act. The Appellate Division affirmed all but the trial court’s finding of a civil rights violation. The Appellate Division determined that the Committee members did not suffer a deprivation of a right because the court provided the ultimate remedy - the referendum. Accordingly, the award of attorney’s fees was vacated. Upon review, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed that the city clerk violated the right of referendum guaranteed by the Faulkner Act. Furthermore, the Court held that the violation of that right deprived the Committee members a substantive right protected by the Civil Rights Act. The vindication of that right under the Civil Rights Act entitled the Committee members to an award of attorney’s fees. The Court therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Tumpson v. Farina" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Lorraine Gormley was an attorney employed by the Department of the Public Advocate, Division of Mental Health Advocacy, providing legal representation to clients involuntarily committed in state psychiatric facilities, including Ancora Psychiatric Hospital. Each ward at Ancora contained a day room in which up to forty patients could congregate. Visiting attorneys and psychiatrists also were required to use the day rooms for professional interviews. Although frequent violence occurred in the day rooms, no security guards or cameras were posted there. While at Ancora, Gormley met for the first time with her client B.R., a 21-year-old woman committed sixteen days earlier for a “psychotic disorder” that induced hallucinations. At the start of the interview in the hospital’s crowded and chaotic day room, B.R. violently attacked Gormley in the presence of hospital staff. Gormley filed a civil action against Ancora’s CEO, LaTanya Wood-El, and other government officials, in their individual capacities, under both the Federal Civil Rights Act and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, alleging that her constitutional right to be free from state-created danger was violated. On defendants’ motions for summary judgment, the trial court concluded that Gormley had presented sufficient evidence to proceed on the civil-rights claims under the state-created-danger doctrine. The court deferred deciding whether she was entitled to injunctive relief. The issue before the Supreme Court in this case was whether injuries Gomley suffered resulted from a state-created danger that violated her substantive-due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and whether defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Under the facts of this case, the Supreme Court concluded that the lawyer had a substantive-due-process right to be free from state-created dangers. Because that right was clearly established at the time the lawyer was attacked, the state official defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. View "Gormley v. Wood-El" on Justia Law

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Zagami, LLC owned the Landmark Americana Tap and Grill in the Borough of Glassboro. In 2006, Zagami applied to the Borough for a renewal of its liquor license. Luis Perez, a citizen residing in Glassboro, opposed the renewal. In a letter to the Glassboro Borough Council, Perez complained of several serious infractions allegedly committed by Zagami, including serving alcohol to minors and bribing public officials with free meals and drinks. As a result of those allegations, the Council scheduled a liquor license renewal hearing and invited Perez and Zagami to participate. At the hearing, Perez testified that, among other things, Landmark flouted fire-safety regulations, served alcohol to visibly intoxicated patrons, and encouraged bouncers to physically harm rowdy customers. Zagami disputed the allegations, calling them unsubstantiated. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Council voted to renew Zagami’s liquor license. A year later, Zagami filed a defamation complaint against Perez for statements that he made during the liquor license renewal hearing. Perez filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that his remarks were made in the course of a quasi-judicial proceeding and thus were entitled to absolute immunity. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and the Appellate Division denied leave to appeal. The Supreme Court granted Perez’s motion for leave to appeal to this Court and summarily remanded the matter to the Appellate Division for consideration on the merits. On remand, the Appellate Division found that Perez’s statements during the liquor license proceeding were entitled to absolute immunity and dismissed the defamation complaint with prejudice. Perez filed a complaint against Zagami in 2010 for malicious use of process., alleging Zagami had instituted its defamation complaint as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) designed to punish Perez for speaking out against Zagami at the liquor license renewal hearing and to discourage his participation in future public proceedings. Zagami filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and Perez filed a cross-motion to amend his complaint to include as defendant the law firm retained by Zagami during the defamation suit. Finding that Zagami’s defamation suit was supported by probable cause, the trial court granted Zagami’s motion to dismiss the malicious use of process claim and denied Perez’s cross-motion to amend the complaint. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed both determinations of the trial court. The panel determined that Zagami’s defamation suit was not supported by probable cause and that Zagami should have been aware that Perez’s statements were privileged at the time it filed suit. Accordingly, the panel reversed the trial court’s grant of Zagami’s motion to dismiss the malicious use of process claim. The Supreme Court granted certification to review only whether the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (CRA) permitted a private right of action against an individual who was not acting under color of law. The Court concluded that a private CRA cause of action only may be pursued against persons acting under “color of law”; the Attorney General, however, is authorized to file CRA actions against persons whether or not they acted under "color of law." View "Perez v. Zagami, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 2005, "The Record," a newspaper owned by Defendant North Jersey Media Group, published an article about an SEC complaint. The headline of the article read: "3 N.J. men accused in $9M stock scam." Neither the SEC complaint nor the article suggested that Plaintiffs Ronald Durando and Gustave Dotoli were arrested. The North Jersey Media Group also owns Defendant "The Nutley Sun," which received permission to reprint the Record article about Plaintiffs. In 2008, the Sun prepared the article for publication in its December 8 edition (a promotional issue circulated to 2500 non-subscribers in addition to the weekly's regular subscribers), but wrote a new headline for the article: "Local men charged in stock scheme." The day after publication, Plaintiffs' attorney sent an email to The Sun pointing out that his clients had not been "arrested," and demanded a retraction. The North Jersey Media Group gave approval for the filing of a retraction, and indeed one was published in boldface and large print on the front page of The Nutley Sun's December 22 edition. This edition was not circulated to the 2500 non-subscribers who received the December 8 edition with the erroneous teaser. Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging libel against the Sun and North Jersey Media Group. The trial court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants on all claims and dismissed the complaint. The court determined that there was not "sufficient evidence from which a jury could clearly and convincingly conclude that any . . . of the defendants acted with actual malice." In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed, finding no 'clear and convincing' evidence of actual malice to warrant a jury trial on defamation or false light. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed: "[a]lthough this case unquestionably involves sloppy journalism, the careless acts of a harried editor, the summary-judgment record before the Court cannot support a finding by clear and convincing evidence that the editor knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth published the false front-page teaser." View "Durando v. The Nutley Sun" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Roland Davis had been a resident of the Devereux New Jersey Center (operated by Defendant Devereux Foundation) since shortly before his twelfth birthday. Plaintiff was diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, pervasive developmental disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and had a history of combative and aggressive behavior. Plaintiff's mother (as his guardian) filed a complaint alleging breach of a "non-delegable duty" to protect Plaintiff from harm, negligent care and supervision, and vicarious liability after a counselor assaulted Plaintiff. The trial court granted Devereux's motion for summary judgment, finding that to the extent claims were for negligence, they were barred by the Charitable Immunity Act (CIA). The court further concluded that New Jersey law does not compel imposing a "non-delegable duty" upon Devereux. The Appellate Division affirmed in part, also finding no "non-delegable duty," and reversed in part, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the counselor acted in part within the scope of her employment. The issues on appeal to the Supreme Court were: (1) whether to impose upon an institution that cares for developmentally disabled residents a "non-delegable duty" to protect them from harm caused by employees' intentional acts; and (2) whether the employee in this case could be found to have acted within the scope of her employment when she criminally assaulted the resident, thereby subjecting the non-profit facility to liability pursuant to "respondeat superior." The Court reaffirmed the duty of due care imposed upon caregivers with in loco parentis responsibilities to persons with developmental disabilities. However, applying the analysis set forth and developed by prior opinions, the parties' relationship, the nature of the risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and public policy, the Court concluded the circumstances of this case did not justify imposing on caregivers a "non-delegable duty" to protect residents from harm caused by employees' intentional acts. Furthermore, the Court held that no rational factfinder could find that the Devereux counselor's criminal assault on Plaintiff was conducted within the scope of her employment. View "Davis v. Devereux Foundation" on Justia Law

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At the time of the attack, Anthony Andrews, who was temporarily living with his sister in an apartment across the hall, called 9-1-1. The call was routed to a State Police Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). When the operator answered, Andrews reported that he "heard somebody screaming next door, inside this building" at "227 Wegman." The call was transferred to Jersey City’s PSAP, where the operator there asked for a location. Andrews responded, "185 Wegman." He stated: "I hear some screamin'" and "I don’t know what’s going on next door." The Jersey City operator prepared a narrative of the call which included the wrong address. The operator never asked Andrews what he meant by "next door" and so she mistakenly wrote "the house next door" rather than an apartment. Officers were dispatched to "Check 185 Wegman Parkway." Officers found the building at 185 Wegman unoccupied and left. Approximately twenty-two hours later, Andrews called 9-1-1 again. The operator who answered interrupted Andrews and asked if he had "a life threatening emergency that’s going on right now," and he replied, "No . . . it happened last night." A wrongful death and survival action was filed by both Plaintiff Paris Wilson through a guardian ad litem, his aunt Sonya Manzano, and by Plaintiff D Artagnan Manzano, individually and as Administrator of the Estates of his children DeQuan and Dartagnania. Plaintiffs claim that the two 9-1-1 operators were derelict in their duties and that their negligence, gross negligence, or wanton and willful disregard for the safety of others caused pain and suffering to all three children and led to the deaths of DeQuan and Dartagnania. The trial court dismissed the claims against defendants, finding that they were protected by statutes including the 9-1-1 immunity act, N.J.S.A. 52:17C-10, and that there was insufficient evidence of wanton and willful conduct needed to vault the immunity statute. The Appellate Division reversed. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that N.J.S.A. 52:17C-10 provides immunity to 9-1-1 operators and their public-entity employers for negligence in delivering 9-1-1 services, including the mishandling of emergency calls. Because the statute does not protect conduct that constitutes wanton and willful disregard for safety, the Court remanded the case to resolve that issue. View "Wilson v. City of Jersey City" on Justia Law

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Defendant DuPont Chambers Works (DuPont) manufactures chemical products, and employed Plaintiff John Seddon for approximately thirty years. In 2002, Mr. Seddon worked as an operator technician in one of DuPont's facilities. Among Mr. Seddon's duties was to ensure the safe operation of equipment and the safe handling of chemicals in the building. Mr. Seddon expressed concern over certain dangerous conditions he saw at the plant. When DuPont did nothing to ameliorate the situation, Mr. Seddon filed an OSHA complaint. From 2003 to 2005, Mr. Seddon alleged that DuPont retaliated against him for making the OSHA complaint by cutting his overtime, reducing his work hours, changing his shifts, and giving him poor performance evaluations. He filed suit against DuPont under the state Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). A jury returned a verdict in Mr. Seddon's favor and awarded him over $2 million for wages lost as a result of DuPont's actions. The award also included punitive damages and attorney fees. DuPont appealed, and the appellate court reversed and entered judgment in favor of DuPont. The appellate court concluded that Mr. Seddon could not prevail on a lost-wage claim under the CEPA unless he proved "actual or constructive discharge," and vacated the $2 million damages award. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Seddon challenged the appellate court's holding that he had to prove "lost-wages" under CEPA. Upon consideration of the briefs and the applicable legal authorities, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. The Court found that lost wages are recoverable in a CEPA case, even in the absence of a "constructive discharge." The Court reinstated the jury verdict and damages award in favor of Mr. Seddon. View "Donelson v. DuPont Chambers Works" on Justia Law