CONNER v. MASTRONARDY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Kevin McNulty on 5/14/2014. (bdk, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
TERRENCE B. CONNER,
Civ. No. 13-3034 (KM) (MAH)
J. MASTRONARDY, et al.,
KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.
Plaintiff, Terrance B. Conner, is proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint filed
pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
1983. I will grant Mr. conner’s application to proceed informapauperis
and will order the Clerk to file the complaint.
At this time, the Court must review the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
and 191 5A to determine whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a
defendant who is immune from suit. For the reasons set forth below, the complaint will be
permitted to proceed in part.
For purposes of screening the complaint, the allegations of the complaint are accepted as
true. Mr. Conner names two defendants in his complaint; specifically, J. Mastronardy and the
Dover Township Police Department. Defendant Mastronardy is a police officer in the Dover
Township Police Department.
Mr. Conner states that Mastronardy stopped him on March 16, 2013 because he matched
the description of a drug dealer. Mastronardy checked and found that Conner had an outstanding
warrant from Newark for a $500.00 fine. Conner was then taken to the police station.
At the police station, Mr. Conner was asked to take his clothes off. Mr. Conner stripped
down to his underwear and Mastronardy “repeatedly ran his hands up and down [his] bare legs
and would sometimes bump into [his] private area. [Mastronardy] also ran his hands through
[plaintiffs] underwear as [he] had them on.” (Dkt. No. 1 at p. 4.) During this process, Mr.
Conner claims that other officers watched, laughed and cracked jokes about his body. Mr.
Conner also alleges that the officers stated that 130 bags of heroin belonged to him.
Mr. Conner contends that the defendants are liable based on false imprisonment and
because they unlawfully searched him. Additionally, he claims that the Dover Township Police
I)epartment is liable because they have “developed and maintained policies exhibiting deliberate
indifference to the constitutional rights of persons.” (Dkt. No. 1 at p. 5.) Additionally, he
alleges that the Dover Township Police Department is liable because they have a policy and
custom of failing to exercise reasonable care in the hiring of its police officers and that they
failed to adequately supervise and train their police officers.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Standard for Sua Sponte Dismissal
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134,
801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66
to 1321-77 (Apr. 26, 1996) (“PLRA”), requires that district courts review complaints in civil
actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in formapauperis, see 28 U.S.C.
seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C.
claim with respect to prison conditions, see 28 U.S.C.
1915A(b), or brings a
1997e. The PLRA directs district courts
to dismiss sua sponte any claim that is frivolous, is malicious, fails to state a claim upon which
relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune.
“The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28
1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).” Schreane v. Seana, 506 F. App’x 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012)
(per curiam) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d 220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)); Mitchell v. Beard,
492 F. App’x 230, 232 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (discussing 28 U.S.C.
Courteau v. United States, 287 F. App’x 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008) (discussing 28 U.S.C.
191 5A(b)). The Supreme Court, in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), explained that Rule
12(b)(6) standard as follows. “[Al pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 678 (quoting Bell Atlantic
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The complaint must allege “sufficient factual
matter” to show that the claim is facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203,
210 (3d Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads
factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable
for the misconduct alleged.” Belmont v. MB mv. Partners, Inc., 708 F.3d 470, 483 n. 17 (3d Cir.
2012) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Moreover, while pro se pleadings are liberally construed,
“pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.” Mala v.
Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013) (citation omitted) (emphasis added).
13. Section 1983 Actions
A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C.
1983 for certain violations of
his constitutional rights. Section 1983 provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance,
regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the
District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any
citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction
thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities
secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party
injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper
proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a
judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s
judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a
declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was
Thus, to state a claim for relief under
§ 1983, a plaintiff must allege, first, the violation of a right
secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and second, that the alleged deprivation
was committed or caused by a person acting under color of state law. See Harvey v. Plains Twp.
Police Dep ‘1, 635 F.3d 606, 609 (3d Cir. 2011) (citations omitted); see also West v. Atkins, 487
U.S. 42, 48 (1988).
A. J. Mastronardy
Plaintiff raises the following claims against defendant Mastronardy: (1) unlawful
arrest/false imprisonment; and (2) unlawful search. Each of these claims is considered in turn.
Unlawful Arrest/False Imprisonment
Plaintiff states that Mastronardy is liable based on false imprisonment because he
“unlawfully searched me and charge[dj me with drugs that didn’t belong to me.” (Dkt. No. I at
p. 5.) “To state a claim for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must establish:
(1) that there was an arrest; and (2) that the arrest was made without probable cause.” James v.
City of Wilkes-Barre, 700 F.3d 675, 680 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Groman v. Twp. ofManalapan,
47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir. 1995); Dowling v. City ofPhila., 855 F.2d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1988)). A
claim for false imprisonment arises when a person is arrested without probable cause and is
subsequently detained pursuant to that unlawful arrest. See Adams v. Qfficer Eric Selhorst, 449
F. App’x 198, 201 (3d Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (citing Groman, 47 F.3d at 636). Thus, a claim of
false imprisonment in this context is derivative of a claim for arrest without probable cause. See
Johnson v. (amden C’nty. Prosecutors’ Office, No. 11-3588, 2012 WL 273887, at 4 n. 2 (D.N.J.
Jan. 31, 2012) (citing Groman, 47 F.3d at 636).
“Probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and the 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.” .Merkle v. Upper Dublin
Sch. Dist., 211 F.3d 782, 788 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d
480, 482 (3d Cir. 1995)); see also Minatee v. Phila. Police Dep ‘t, 502 F. App’x 225, 228 (3d Cir.
2012) (not precedential; citation omitted). The arresting officer must only reasonably believe at
the time of the arrest that an offense is being committed, a significantly lower burden than
proving guilt at trial. See Wright v. City ofPhila., 409 F.3d 595, 602 (3d Cir. 2005); see also
Minatee, 502 F. App’x at 228 (citation omitted). Additionally, where a plaintiff is arrested for
multiple charges, establishing probable cause with respect to any one charge is sufficient to
defeat Fourth Amendment claim. See Startzell V. City ofPhila., 533 F.3d 183, 204 n. 14 (3d Cir.
The complaint fails to state an unlawful arrest/false imprisonment claim against
Mastronardy. Specifically, Mr. Conner fails to allege that Mastronardy lacked probable cause to
arrest him. Indeed, Mr. Conner states in the complaint that Mastronardy told him that he had an
outstanding warrant from Newark based on his failure to pay a fine. Mr. Conner does not allege
that the warrant was no longer outstanding or that Mastronardy’s reliance on the outstanding
warrant was unreasonable in light of relevant circumstances. See Berg v. Cnty. ofAllegheny, 219
F.3d 261, 273 (3d Cir. 2000). Accordingly, there is no allegation of lack of probable cause and
no sufficient allegation of an unlawful arrest/false imprisonment claim. This claim will be
dismissed without prejudice.
Plaintiff also argues that Mastronardy is liable based on the alleged unlawful strip search
at the police station following his arrest. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches
and seizures. See U.S. CONST. amend. IV; see also Walsh v. Krantz, 386 F. App’x 334, 340 (3d
Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (citing Soldal v. Cook Cnty., Ill., 506 U.S. 56, 62 (1992)).
The United States Supreme Court recently analyzed “whether undoubted security
imperatives involved in jail supervision override the assertion that some detainees must be
exempt from the more invasive search procedures at issue absent a reasonable suspicion of a
concealed weapon or other contraband.” Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders qfCnty. of
132 S. Ct. 1510, 1518 (2012). In Florence, the Supreme Court held that the
facility struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions by
conducting a close visual inspection of every detainee while undressed before admission to
general population. See id. at 1523. Nevertheless, Justice Alito noted in his concurrence that the
holding in Florence was limited, as the Court only held “that jail administrators may require all
arrestees who are committed to the general population of a jail to undergo visual strip searches
not involving physical contact by corrections officers.” Id. at 1524 (Alito, J., concurring)
(emphasis in original). Indeed, Justice Alito further noted that, “[t]he Court does not address
whether it is always reasonable, without regard to the offense or the reason for detention, to strip
search an arrestee before the arrestee’s detention has been reviewed by a judicial officer.” Id. at
In light of the reservation of issues noted in Justice Alito’s concurrence and the
circumstances of Mr. Conner’s arrest and subsequent strip search, I find that Mr. Conner’s
unlawful search claim has at least facial plausibility. At any rate, the holding of Florence does
not preclude his claim. Indeed, Mr. Conner was not only strip searched at the police station, but
was physically touched by Mastronardy. Furthermore, there is no indication that Mr. Conner’s
strip search was done as a precaution before placing him in general population, or that it
occurred after his detention had been reviewed by a judicial officer. Accordingly, I will permit
Mr. Conner’s Fourth Amendment unreasonable search claim to proceed against Mastronardy.’
13. Dover Township Police Department
Mr. Conner also alleges that the Dover Township Police Department has developed a
policy that led to his rights being violated. I construe this allegation to mean that the Dover
Township Police Department enacted a policy to strip search arrested detainees like him.
Initially, I note that the Dover Township Police Department cannot be liable under a respondeal
superior theory of liability. See Monell v. Dep ‘t ofSocial Servs. of City ofNew York, 436 U.s.
658, 694 (1978). “Instead, it is when execution of a government’s policy or custom, whether
made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts my fairly be said to represent official
policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under
§ 1983.” Id. Thus,
to state a claim against the Dover ‘l’ownship Police Department due to its purported policy, Mr.
Mr. Conner alleges in his complaint that unnamed officers laughed and cracked jokes about his
body during the strip search. Such conduct, though appalling and unprofessional, is not
unconstitutional. While Mr. Conner does not specifically name these individuals as potential
John Doe defendants, I note that even if he had, such allegations would fail to state a claim. See
Brown v. Hamilton Twp. Police Dep ‘t Mercer Cnly., Ni, No. 13-3 193, 2013 WL 6246478, at *1
(3d Cir. Dec. 4, 2013) (per curiam) (“[A]llegations of verbal abuse or threats, absent any injury
or damage, are not cognizable under § 1983.”) (citing McBride v. Deer, 240 F.3d 1287, 1291 n. 3
(10th Cir. 2001); Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 738 (9th Cir. 1997)); Barber v. Jones, No.
12-2578, 2013 WL 211251, at *5 (D.N.J. Jan. 18, 2013) (noting that general allegations of verbal
abuse unaccompanied by injury or damage are not cognizable under § 1983 regardless if plaintiff
is a pretrial detainee) (citations omitted).
Conner must allege: (1) a constitutional injury that was (2) caused when the Police Department
took action pursuant to that custom or policy. See Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex., 503
U.s. 115, 120 (1992); see also Batts v. Gloria, No. 13-1926, 2013 WL 6824930, at *2 (3d Cir.
2013) (per curiam) (citing Sanfordv. Stiles, 456 F.3d 298, 314 (3d Cir. 2006)). As stated in Part
IV.A.ii, Mr. Conner has alleged a potential constitutional violation with respect to an alleged
unlawful strip search. Furthermore, Mr. Conner alleges that his injury resulted from
implementation of a Dover Township Police Department policy. Accordingly, Mr. Conner’s
claim against the Dover Township Police Department will be permitted to proceed.
Mr. Conner has thus alleged an unconstitutional policy, but even “in the absence of an
unconstitutional policy, a municipality’s failure to properly train its employees and officers can
create an actionable violation of a party’s constitutional rights under
1983.” Reitz v. Cnty. of
Bucks, 125 F.3d 139, 145 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388
(1989)). As an alternative means of attributing liability to the Dover Township Police
Department, Mr. Conner alleges that his constitutional injuries resulted from the Department’s
failure to properly train its employees. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
has noted that “[f]ailure to train.
municipal employees can ordinarily be considered deliberate
indifference only where the failure has caused a pattern of violations.” Berg, 219 F.3d at 276
(citing Bd. of Cnty. Cmm ‘rs ofBryan Cnty.
Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 408-09 (1997)). The Court
said “ordinarily” because it is “possible to maintain a failure to train claim without showing a
pattern, [althoughl the Supreme Court has stated that the burden on a plaintiff in such a case is
high.” Kline ex rel. Arndt v. Manjield, 225 F. App’x 624, 629 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Bryan
Cnty., 520 U.S. at 409; see also Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle, 622 F.3d 248, 265 (3d Cir. 2010)
(noting that it is theoretically possible to show a deliberate indifferent failure to train in the
absence of an underlying pattern of violations). Thus, in Bryan County, the Supreme Court noted
in the context of a failure to train law enforcement officers that:
in a narrow range of circumstances, a violation of federal rights
may be a highly predicable consequence of a failure to equip law
enforcement officers with specific tools to handle recurrent
situations. The likelihood that the situation will recur and the
predictability that an officer lacking specific tools to handle that
situation will violate citizens’ rights could justify a finding that
policymakers’ decisions not to train an officer reflected “deliberate
indifference” to the obvious consequence of the policymakers’
choice namely, a violation of a specific constitutional or statutory
Bryan Cnty., 520 U.S. at 409.
Mr. Conner does not allege that the Dover Township Police Department has engaged in a
pattern of violations. As explained above, however, it is possible, if difficult, to make out a
failure to train claim without proving a pattern of violations.
Alleging, of course, is not proving; whether Mr. Conner can establish his claims remains to
be seen. At this preliminary screening stage, however, I will permit Mr. Conner’s policy and
failure to train claims against the Dover Township Police Department to go forward.
For the foregoing reasons, Mr. Conner’s unlawful arrest/false imprisonment claim against
Mastronadry will be dismissed without prejudice for failure to state a clam. His unlawful search
claim against Mastronardy will be permitted to proceed. Additionally, Mr. Conner’s policy and
failure to train claims against the Dover Township Police Department will be permitted to
proceed. An appropriate order will be entered.
Dated: May 15, 2014
United States District Judge
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