STRATTON et al v. CITY OF VINELAND et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Joseph E. Irenas on 5/27/2015. (dmr)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
NAJEE STRATTON AND TYISHA
HONORABLE JOSEPH E. IRENAS
CIVIL ACTION NO. 12-05997
CITY OF VINELAND; DETECTIVE
GAMALIEL “GAMI” CRUZ; POLICE
CHIEF TIMOTHY CODISPOTI; JOHN
DOES 1-10; AND JANE DOES 1-10,
BEGELMAN ORLOW & MELLETZ
By: Paul R. Melletz, Esq.
411 Route 70 East, Suite 245
Cherry Hill, New Jersey, 08034
Counsel for Plaintiffs
BARRETT AND PAVLUK, LLC
By: Judson B. Barret, Esq.
1200 Eagle Avenue, Suite 204
Ocean, New Jersey 07712
Counsel for Defendants City of Vineland & Police Chief
THE MACMAIN LAW GROUP, LLC
By: Brian H. Leinhauser, Esq.
Charles R. Starnes, Esq.
101 Lindenwood Drive, Suite 160
Malvern, PA 19355
Counsel for Detective Gamaliel “Gami” Cruz
IRENAS, Senior District Judge:
Plaintiffs Najee and Tyisha Stratton brought this civil
rights action against the City of Vineland, Vineland’s Police
Chief Timothy Codispoti, and Detective Gamliel Cruz based Mr.
Stratton’s arrest and prosecution, and the manner in which
Vineland police officers detained Mrs. Stratton while executing
a search warrant on Plaintiffs’ shared home.
Mr. Stratton has
since voluntarily dismissed his own claims and only Mrs.
Stratton’s claims remain.
Currently pending before the Court are Defendants’ motions
for summary judgment on Tyisha Stratton’s claims.1
reasons explained herein, Defendant Cruz’s motion will be DENIED
and Defendants City of Vineland and Codispoti’s motion will be
GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.
On the night of September 29, 2010, Defendant Detective
Gamaliel Cruz, along with other Vineland police officers,
executed a search warrant for Plaintiffs’ shared residence in
the City of Vineland, New Jersey.
(Def. Cruz’s Statement of
Relevant Undisputed Facts (“D.S.F.”) ¶ 13)
suspected that Mr. Stratton, who had been arrested earlier that
night at a different location, used the residence to keep the
proceeds from drug sales.
(Cruz Search Warrant Aff. ¶ 7)
is no indication from the police reports or search warrant
Defendant Cruz obtained his own counsel and filed his own motion for summary
judgment. Defendants Codispoti and City of Vineland filed a separate motion
for summary judgment but signed on to Cruz’s statement of undisputed facts.
application that the police believed Mrs. Stratton to be
involved in any illegal activity.
While conducting their search of the residence, the
officers came upon Mrs. Stratton in her bedroom in a partially
nude state – apparently topless.
The officers prevented Mrs.
Stratton from dressing for some period of time while conducting
a sweep of the bedroom to ensure no one else was present.
spent this time at her side trying to calm her down.
officers then let Mrs. Stratton put on a tank-top, took her out
of the bedroom, placed her in handcuffs, and sat her on her
living room couch while the officers searched the rest of the
Neither party disputes these basic facts.
parties agree on little else regarding the incident.
First, it is unclear how many and which officers were
present during the sweep of Mrs. Stratton’s bedroom.
to Mrs. Stratton, four or five officers entered her room with
flashlights on and guns “up.”
(Stratton Dep. at 22:1-18)
Cruz’s police report of the incident states that Cruz responded
to the location with Detectives Paul Shadinger, Misael
Candelario, and Gary Mollik.
(Cruz Rpt. at 2, Ex. 7 to Cruz’s
In his deposition, Cruz testified that only he and
Detective Shadinger initially entered the residence.
stated in his deposition that he remembers entering the
apartment with Cruz.
(Candelario Dep. at 23:12-14; 26:22-27:1)
Second, the parties dispute how long the officers forced
Ms. Stratton to remain partially nude.
During her deposition,
Mrs. Stratton initially testified that it took 15 minutes, but
later conceded that she did not know the exact time frame
because she was scared and “out of it.”
(Stratton Dep. at
She agreed with Defense counsel’s statement that
“in the heat of that moment every second probably felt like a
minute” and that “it could have been just a minute or two.”
(Id. at 60:5-8; 62:25-63:8)
She testified that, during this
period of time, the officers looked in her closet but did not
search through any drawers or under the bed.
(Id. at 92:17-
According to Cruz, Mrs. Stratton remained partially nude
for only 30 seconds.
(Cruz Dep. at 22:18-23:9)
During his deposition, Detective Candelario stated that he
had not received any specific training or instructions regarding
what actions to take upon encountering a nude female when
executing a search warrant.
(Candelario Dep. at 35:12-36:4)
said that officers learned to handle that type of situation “onthe-job.”
Defendants have not disputed this testimony.
Plaintiffs filed their Complaint against Detective Cruz,
Police Chief Codispoti and the Vineland Police Department on
September 24, 2012.2
In Counts VI, VII, and VIII, respectively,
Plaintiffs also named numerous “John Doe” defendants but never amended their
Complaint so as to identify any additional individuals.
Mrs. Stratton asserts claims against (1) Defendant Cruz for
conspiracy to violate her civil rights, (2) Defendant Codispoti,
in his official capacity, for supervisory liability, and (3) the
City of Vineland for municipal liability.
Summary Judgment Standard
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary
judgment should be granted if “pleadings, depositions, answers
to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with
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.”
See also Anderson v. Liberty
Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).
In deciding a motion for
summary judgment, the court must construe all facts and
inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
See Boyle v. Allegheny Pa., 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998).
The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no
genuine issue of material fact remains.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).
See Celotex Corp. v.
A fact is material only
if it will affect the outcome of a lawsuit under the applicable
law, and a dispute of a material fact is genuine if the evidence
is such that a reasonable fact finder could return a verdict for
the nonmoving party.
See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.
The nonmoving party must present “more than a scintilla of
evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.”
Woloszyn v. Cnty. of Lawrence, 396 F.3d 314, 319 (3d Cir. 2005).
“If the evidence is merely colorable . . . or is not
significantly probative . . . summary judgment may be granted.”
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted).
court’s role in deciding the merits of a summary judgment motion
is to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial, not
to determine the credibility of the evidence or the truth of the
Id. at 249.
Due to genuine disputes of material fact related to Cruz’s
conduct during the search of Mrs. Stratton’s residence, the
Court will deny the motions for summary judgment as to Mrs.
Stratton’s claims against Detective Cruz and the City of
The Court will grant Defendant Codispoti’s motion for
summary judgment and dismiss Count VII of the Complaint.
A. Claim Against Defendant Cruz
“[P]olice officers who, acting under color of state law,
violate an individual's federal constitutional or statutory
rights are subject to liability under § 1983.”
Curley v. Klem,
298 F.3d 271, 277 (3d Cir. 2002).
Mrs. Stratton, couching her claim against Defendant Cruz as
a civil rights conspiracy, alleges that Cruz and other Vineland
officers held her captive in a nude state so as to cause a
“significant deprivation of liberty.”
(Compl. ¶¶ 56-57)
Court reads her claim, albeit inartfully drafted, as a § 1983
claim against Cruz for infringing on Mrs. Stratton’s Fourth
Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures.
The relevant issue in this case is not whether the officers
were permitted to keep Mrs. Stratton partially nude, but whether
they kept her in that vulnerable position for an unreasonably
long period of time.3
The Supreme Court has made clear that,
“[i]n executing a search warrant, officers may take
[objectively] reasonable action to secure the premises and to
ensure the safety and the efficacy of the search.”
Cal. v. Rettele, 550 U.S. 609, 614 (2007).
In Retelle, such
“reasonable action” included keeping a naked couple from
dressing while the officers took two minutes to secure that
The Supreme Court noted, however, that
plaintiffs in that case had not alleged that their detention was
prolonged or that the officers prevented plaintiffs from
dressing longer than necessary to ensure everyone’s safety,
which might have rendered the search unreasonable.
Id. at 615.
Unlike the plaintiffs in Rettele, Mrs. Stratton has alleged
that Cruz detained her for longer than necessary, and there is a
genuine dispute as to the length of time she remained undressed
During oral argument, Plaintiff also suggested that Cruz’s initial entry
into the residence (allegedly without knocking) and handcuffing of Mrs.
Stratton also constituted § 1983 violations. The Court rejects these claims,
as Mrs. Stratton failed to raise them in her Complaint.
while the officers swept her bedroom.
Though her memory of the
incident is understandably fuzzy, Mrs. Stratton testified that
it could have taken as long as 15 minutes.4
Cruz said it took 30
At this stage, construing all facts and making all
inferences in Mrs. Stratton’s favor, the Court assumes that Mrs.
Stratton remained nude for 15 minutes as four or five male
police officers searched her bedroom.
Further, Mr. Stratton had
already been arrested earlier that evening and Mrs. Stratton was
not suspected of any illegal activity.
A reasonable jury could
find on this record that Cruz prevented her from dressing for an
unreasonable amount of time, which violated Mrs. Stratton’s
constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures.
Having found there to be evidence supporting an underlying
Fourth Amendment violation, the Court turns to whether Defendant
Cruz would be entitled to qualified immunity.
“The doctrine of
qualified immunity protects government officials 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.”
Pearson v. Callahan, 555
U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (internal quotations omitted).
A right is
Defendants ask the Court to disregard that estimation due to Mrs. Stratton’s
later statement that it could have been only a minute or two. The Court will
not do so. It does not surprise the Court that Mrs. Stratton cannot remember
the exact passage of time after suddenly encountering numerous armed male
officers while she stood partially nude. A jury, not the Court, should
determine the timing issue.
clearly established when “it would be clear to a reasonable
officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he
Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001)
Here, a jury could conclude on this record that no
reasonable officer in Cruz’s position would believe that it was
necessary to keep Mrs. Stratton partially nude for 15 minutes.
With four or five officers present, ensuring that no other
individuals were in the room should have taken just a few
If Mrs. Stratton’s version of the events are true,
Defendant Cruz would not be entitled to qualified immunity.
B. Municipal Liability Claims
In Counts VII and VIII of the Complaint, Mrs. Stratton
asserts § 1983 claims against Police Chief Timothy Codispoti, in
his official capacity only, and the City of Vineland for
policies or customs responsible for the constitutional violation
Plaintiff alleges she suffered.
(Compl. at 14-16)
Stratton’s claim against Codispoti is, in effect, a redundant
claim against the municipality, the Court will dismiss Count
See Cordial v. Atlantic City, No. 1:11-cv-01457 (RMB/AMD),
2014 WL 1095584, at *9 (D.N.J. March 19, 2014) (“A suit against
the Chief of Police in his official capacity is really a claim
against the police department and, in turn, the municipality.”).
However, the Court will deny Defendant City of Vineland’s
motion for summary judgment on Count VIII of the Complaint,
which rests on Vineland’s alleged failure to train its officers
on how to handle nude or partially nude individuals encountered
when executing a search warrant.
A municipality may be liable under § 1983 “when the
execution of a government’s policy or custom, whether made by
its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be
said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury.”
v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978).
or custom “may relate to the training of police officers.”
Brown v. Muhlenberg Twp., 269 F.3d 205, 215 (3d Cir. 2001).
a plaintiff to succeed on a failure to train claim, the lack of
training must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights
of the persons with whom the police come into contact.”
Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989).
To prove “deliberate indifference,” a plaintiff must show
that “(1) municipal policymakers know that employees will
confront a particular situation; (2) the situation involves a
difficult choice or a history of employees mishandling; and (3)
the wrong choice by an employee will frequently cause
deprivation of constitutional rights.”
Carter v. City of
Phila., 181 F.3d 339, 357 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing Walker v. City
of New York, 974 F.2d 293, 297–298 (2d Cir. 1992)).
plaintiff must prove that the alleged constitutional violation
would have been avoided had the employee been trained under a
program that was not deficient.
Canton, 489 U.S. at 391.
Here, the City of Vineland must have known that officers
are bound to encounter individuals in sensitive positions such
as the one in which Mrs. Stratton found herself, especially when
officers execute search warrants early in the morning (as in
Rettele) or late at night (as occurred here).
In addition, the
wrong choice by an officer in such situations, i.e. keeping an
individual undressed longer than necessary, would invariably
cause a deprivation of constitutional rights.
Although “[a] pattern of similar constitutional violations
by untrained employees is ordinarily necessary to demonstrate
deliberate indifference,” the Supreme Court has “left open the
possibility that, ‘in a narrow range of circumstances’ . . . the
unconstitutional consequences of failing to train could be so
patently obvious that a city could be liable under § 1983
without proof of a pre-existing pattern of violations.”5
v. Thompson, 131 S. Ct. 1350, 1360-61 (2011).
Here, Detective Candelario testified that the Vineland
Police Department did not provide any specific training or
instruction on how to handle a situation where officers
In Canton, the Court used the example of officers obviously needing training
on the constitutional limits of the use of deadly force when city
policymakers know that the officers will be required to arrest fleeing felons
and that these officers carry firearms, in part, to accomplish that task.
489 U.S. at 390 n. 10.
encounter a nude suspect or individual when conducting a search.
(Candelario Dep. at 35:19-36:7)
dispute this testimony.
The City of Vineland does not
On this record, a reasonable jury could
find it objectively obvious that Vineland should have trained
its officers not to keep any individual from dressing any longer
than necessary to ensure officer safety.
A reasonable jury
could also conclude that Cruz would not have kept Mrs. Stratton
from dressing for so long had he received such training.
For these reasons, the Court will deny Defendant City of
Vineland’s motion for summary judgment on Mrs. Stratton’s
municipal liability claim.
For the reasons set forth above, Defendant Cruz’s Motion
for Summary Judgment will be DENIED.
Defendants Codispoti and
the City of Vineland’s Motion for Summary Judgment will be
GRANTED as to Mrs. Stratton’s claim against Codispoti (Count
VII), but DENIED as to her claim against the City of Vineland
An appropriate Order accompanies this Opinion.
Date: May 27, 2015
s/ Joseph E. Irenas
JOSEPH E. IRENAS, S.U.S.D.J.
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