HARRINGTON v. BERGEN COUNTY et al
OPINION fld. Signed by Judge Stanley R. Chesler on 2/23/15. (sr, )
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
BERGEN COUNTY, BERGEN COUNTY
PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE, JOHN
MOLINELLI, in his official and individual
capacities, KENNETH ARDIZZONE, in
his official and individual capacities,
MICHAEL TRAHEY, in his official and
individual capacities, FRANK PUCCIO, in
his official and individual capacities,
DAVID NATHANSON, in his official and
individual capacities, and PATRICIA
Civil Action No. 14-cv-5764 (SRC)
CHESLER, District Judge
This matter comes before the Court upon Defendants’ three motions to dismiss the
Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiff opposes the motions.
The Court has considered the parties’ submissions. For the reasons expressed in this Opinion,
the Court will deny Defendants’ motions and permit this case to proceed.
A. Factual History
In this case, a former public employee asserts that government officials violated her
rights by forcing her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation against her will. The Court assumes the
following facts to be true for purposes of this motion only.
In 1980, Plaintiff began her employment at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office
(“BCPO”), where she would then work for approximately thirty years. She served most recently
as a data programmer for the BCPO, and her performance evaluations were positive. During her
employment, Plaintiff worked with and befriended David Martin. Mr. Martin is legally married
to Defendant Speake-Martin, but the two have been separated since 2005.
In 2012, Plaintiff moved into Mr. Martin’s home, where two of his and Speake-Martin’s
children also lived. Speake-Martin was upset that Plaintiff moved in with Mr. Martin. She
expressed her displeasure to her good friend and former colleague, Defendant John Molinelli,
who is also the Bergen County Prosecutor.
On September 21, 2012, what would later be referred to as “the text-message incident”
took place. While waiting in line at a supermarket, Plaintiff tried to send Mr. Martin’s children a
text message by using the cellphone’s voice-dictation feature. Plaintiff wanted to ask the
children where Mr. Martin was, but the cell phone also picked up the voice of another person
waiting in line. As a result, the message referred to Mr. Martin and an “accident.” Plaintiff
quickly sent a follow-up message to Mr. Martin’s children and spoke with them by phone; she
apologized and assured them that Mr. Martin was fine.
Speake-Martin read Plaintiff’s message on one of her kid’s phones. The next day,
Plaintiff apologized to Speake-Martin for her error, explaining that it had been an accident.
Speake-Martin, however, remained angry at Plaintiff, and she threatened to get her fired.
Speake-Martin later spoke with Defendant Molinelli and insisted that he carry out her threat.
A few days later, on September 24th, Defendant Ardizzone, BCPO’s Chief Information
Officer, instructed Plaintiff and Mr. Martin to attend a meeting. Various individuals were
present in the office conference room, including Defendants Molinelli and Ardizzone, as well as
David Nathanson (the Deputy Executive Prosecutor), Frank Puccio (the Executive Assistant
Prosecutor), and Michael Trahey (from the Executive Office) (collectively “Defendants”). They
instructed Mr. Martin to enter the room and told Plaintiff to wait outside in the hall.
Defendants asked Mr. Martin about the text-message incident, and Mr. Martin explained
what had happened. Defendants told Mr. Martin that Plaintiff was ill and potentially dangerous,
and they informed him that Plaintiff was going to be taken to a psychiatric facility for seventytwo hours. Mr. Martin responded that Plaintiff did not pose any danger. Defendant Nathanson
told Mr. Martin that if he defended Plaintiff, they would claim that Mr. Martin was himself
delusional. Defendants soon instructed Mr. Martin to leave and send in Plaintiff. Plaintiff
entered. Defendants asked Plaintiff about the text-message incident, and she explained.
Defendants then told Plaintiff to leave again and have Mr. Martin return. Mr. Martin reentered
the conference room, and Defendants told him to inform Plaintiff that she was to be admitted to a
psychiatric facility; they said the news would be better coming from him.
Mr. Martin left and told Plaintiff about Defendants’ plan; she began to cry. Detective
Patricia DeSimone escorted Plaintiff to the office library. Plaintiff was not permitted to leave the
library, except to use the restroom once. While Plaintiff waited, Defendants drafted a letter
addressed to her, which stated that she was being suspended from work with pay, and which
informed her that she was to be transported to a psychiatric facility for evaluation.
Approximately one hour later, Defendant Puccio gave Plaintiff the letter. That document is
entitled “Suspension with Pay,” and it reads in part as follows:
[E]ffective today, you are suspended with pay pending a psychiatric
evaluation. The basis for this action is a concern for whether you
are capable of functioning in this workplace without posing a danger
to yourself or others in light of the events that [the named
Defendants] and I discussed with you this morning. At the time of
this writing, preparations are being made to have you transported to
. . . a psychiatric facility for an evaluation in consultation with your
(Compl., Ex. A).
The letter is dated September 24, 2012, and it is signed by Defendant Molinelli.
Detective DeSimone then drove Plaintiff to the Bergen Regional Medical Center (“the
hospital”). Mr. Martin met Plaintiff there. It was at this time, shortly before 1:00PM, that
Plaintiff underwent an unwanted psychiatric evaluation. At the hospital, several people
interviewed Plaintiff. A doctor spoke with Plaintiff and was surprised to learn that she had been
brought there apparently due to sending an accidental text message. The doctor concluded that
Plaintiff was not psychotic, posed no danger, and that she should be discharged. The hospital
accordingly discharged Plaintiff shortly after 4:00PM that day.
Plaintiff resigned from her employment with the BCPO effective May 1, 2013; she
claims that she was forced to do so.
B. Procedural History and Defendants’ Motions
Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint in September of 2014. In it, Plaintiff alleges the
following six counts against Defendants: (1) unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment and
in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) denial of procedural due process under the Fourteenth
Amendment and in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (3) substantive due process violations under
the Fourteenth Amendment and in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (4) a violation of the
corresponding provisions of the New Jersey Constitution under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act
(“NJCRA”), N.J.S.A. § 10:6-2; (5) conspiracy in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); and (6)
conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the NJCRA.
On October 27, 2014, Defendant Bergen County moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint
pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Bergen County argues that it is not
responsible for prosecutors’ conduct, and that Plaintiff has stated no claim against it.
On October 28, 2014, Defendants BCPO, Ardizzone, Molinelli, Nathanson, Puccio, and
Trahey (“the BCPO Defendants”) moved to dismiss as well. In support of their motion, the
BCPO Defendants argue that they are immune from suit because they were engaged in lawenforcement activities and were acting as an arm of the State of New Jersey. Apart from
immunity, they suggest that Plaintiff has failed to state sufficient facts to support her claims.
On November 20, 2014, Defendant Speake-Martin also moved to dismiss. Plaintiff’s
sole claims against Speake-Martin are for conspiracy, and in her motion, Speake-Martin argues
that she is not a state actor and thus cannot be held liable. Moreover, she asserts that even if she
were a state actor, Plaintiff’s conspiracy claim is inadequately pleaded.
Plaintiff opposes the motions. She argues that the BCPO Defendants are not immune
from suit, as they were engaged in administrative rather than law-enforcement conduct, and
because Plaintiff sued the BCPO employees in both their official and individual capacities.
Plaintiff urges that Defendant Bergen County is indeed liable for the conduct of its final policy
maker on personnel matters, which here is Defendant Molinelli. On the merits, Plaintiff
contends that her Complaint details more than enough factual allegations to go forward.
A. Motions to Dismiss
A complaint will survive a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) only if it states “sufficient factual
allegations, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.’” Iqbal, 556
U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 570 (2007)). “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.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S.
at 556). Following Iqbal and Twombly, the Third Circuit has held that to prevent dismissal of a
claim the complaint must show, through the facts alleged, that the plaintiff is entitled to relief.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009). In other words, the facts alleged
“must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level[.]’” Eid v. Thompson, 740
F.3d 118, 122 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
While the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, it
need not accept a “legal conclusion couched as factual allegation.” Baraka v. McGreevey, 481
F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007); Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679
(“While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by
factual allegations.”). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by
mere conclusory statements, will not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. In reviewing a motion to
dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court may consider the allegations of the complaint, as well as
documents attached to or specifically referenced in the complaint, and matters of public record.
See Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 259 (3d Cir. 1998) (citing 5A Charles Alan
Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357 (2d ed.1990)).
B. Defendants’ Claims to Immunity and Related Defenses
Before assessing the substantive sufficiency of Plaintiff’s pleadings, the Court will assess
the various Defendants’ contentions that they are immune from suit, that they are not “persons”
under Section 1983 or the NJCRA, or that they are otherwise not subject to liability under the
circumstances. The Court will address such claims by (i) Defendant Bergen County; (ii)
Defendant BCPO; (iii) Defendant BCPO Employees; and (iv) Defendant Speake-Martin.
i. Defendant Bergen County
Bergen County first contends that it is not vicariously liable for the actions of Bergen
County prosecutors, as those officials constitute an arm of the State of New Jersey and not the
County. Under New Jersey law, a county is not liable for prosecutors’ law-enforcement
activities, but it may be held liable for their administrative conduct. See Wright v. State, 169
N.J. 422, 450 (2001). The New Jersey Supreme Court has explained the dichotomy as follows:
“[W]hen county prosecutors execute their sworn duties to enforce the law by making use of all
the tools lawfully available to them to combat crime, they act as agents of the State . . . . [When
they] perform administrative tasks unrelated to their strictly prosecutorial functions, such as a
decision whether to promote an investigator, [they act] on behalf of the county[.]” Id. (quoting
Coleman v. Kaye, 87 F.3d 1491, 1499 (3d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1084 (1997)); see
also Lavezzi v. State, 219 N.J. 163, 178 (2014) (“[T]he test is whether the act or omission of the
county prosecutor’s office and its employees that gave rise to the potential liability derived from
the prosecutor’s power to enforce the criminal law[.]”); Cashen v. Spann, 66 N.J. 541, 552
(1975) (treating prosecutors as State agents for conduct that “arose out of the investigation of
criminal activity”); Michaels v. State, 968 F. Supp. 230, 232-34 (D.N.J. 1997) (Barry, J.) (no
claim against County related to prosecution of plaintiff), aff’d, 150 F.3d 257 (3d Cir. 1998).
Here, Bergen County may be vicariously liable under state law because there is no
indication that the prosecutors’ alleged conduct involved an investigative or crime-fighting
function. Defendants do not contend that Plaintiff was under investigation for any unlawful
activity, nor that the BCPO sought to initiate an arrest, indictment, or any law-enforcement
proceeding against her. Instead, accepting the Complaint’s allegations as true, the conduct
consisted of BCPO employers taking action against a BCPO employee for personal reasons. The
principles of Wright, 169 N.J. at 450, and its progeny, thus do not foreclose County liability here.
Bergen County next contends that it is not a “person” subject to suit under Section 1983
or the parallel NJCRA. Federal law provides that if a “County Prosecutor was acting as the final
decisionmaker for the county, [then] the county may therefore be held liable under § 1983.”
Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 485 (1986). To determine whether an official has
final decision-making authority for purposes of Section 1983 liability, a court assesses (1)
whether the official is responsible under state law for policy-making in the area at issue, and (2)
whether the official’s authority in that area is “final and unreviewable.” Hill v. Borough of
Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 245-46 (3d Cir. 2006).
In this case, discovery is needed to decide whether the criteria set forth in Pembaur, 475
U.S. at 485, and Hill, 455 F.3d at 245-46, are met. The Court cannot now determine whether the
action taken against Plaintiff was indeed a personnel decision rendered by a final decision-maker
and whose determination was unreviewable. Nevertheless, for purposes of this motion, Plaintiff
has successfully alleged that those circumstances are at least plausibly present. According to the
Complaint, just before Plaintiff was taken to the hospital, she was handed a letter written by
Defendant Molinelli, which was entitled “Suspension with Pay,” and which explained that a
psychiatric evaluation was needed to see if Plaintiff was “capable of functioning in this
workplace[.]” (Compl. Ex. A) (emphasis added); see also Pittsburgh, 147 F.3d at 259 (Court
may review documents attached to Complaint when deciding motion to dismiss). That suggests
the conduct alleged amounted to a workplace policy, that is, an employment decision for which
Molinelli had the final say. See generally Mercer Cnty. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders v. Mercer
Cnty. Prosecutor, 412 A.2d 809, 810 (N.J. App. Div. 1980) (“[T]he Prosecutor [has] a dominant
status in relation to the appointment of personnel[.]”).
The Court thus rejects Defendant Bergen County’s contentions that it may not be held
vicariously liable under state law, or that it cannot be sued under Section 1983 or the NJCRA.
ii. Defendant BCPO
The BCPO similarly cites Wright, 169 N.J. at 450, and Coleman, 87 F.3d at 1499, to
assert that it is immune from suit when acting in a law-enforcement capacity. The Court rejects
this argument for the same reasons discussed above with respect to Bergen County: the conduct
alleged here appears separate from the enforcement of a law, let alone any crime-fighting
function of the prosecutor’s office which could render it immune.
The BCPO next contends that it is entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh
Amendment of the United States Constitution. In suits against a prosecutor’s office, if the State
is the real party in interest, then the prosecutor’s office is immune. See Estate of Lagano v.
Bergen Cnty. Prosecutor’s Office, 769 F.3d 850, 857-58 (3d Cir. 2014). To determine whether
the State is the real party in interest, courts consider three factors: (1) whether the State would
pay judgment; (2) the office’s status under state law; and (3) the office’s degree of autonomy
from the State. Id. at 857 (citing Fitchik v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, 873 F.2d 655, 659 (3d
Cir.1989)). These three “Fitchik factors” also implicate the same administrative versus lawenforcement inquiry discussed above. See Beightler v. Office of Essex Cnty. Prosecutor, 342 F.
App’x 829, 832 (3d Cir. 2009) (noting the analytical overlap between Fitchik and Coleman, and
holding that a prosecutor’s office was entitled to sovereign immunity because it “undeniably
engaged in a classic law enforcement function when it charged” the plaintiff with a crime); Hyatt
v. County of Passaic, No. 08–3206, 2009 WL 2055136 (3d Cir. July 16, 2009) (finding
prosecutor’s office entitled to sovereign immunity for conduct that “related to their prosecutorial
function, [and thus] the State would be liable for any judgment.”).
Applying the first Fitchik factor here, the BCPO emphasizes that the State is liable for
judgments against it. It is unclear, however, whether the State would be on the hook financially,
considering the non-prosecutorial nature of the conduct alleged. Cf. Palmerini v. Burgos, No.
10-cv-210 (FLW), 2011 WL 3625104, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 15, 2011) (“[C]ourts within the Third
Circuit have consistently and uniformly held that the Eleventh Amendment precludes federal
suits against New Jersey county prosecutors, as well as their offices and staff, arising out of their
law enforcement functions on the basis that the real party in interest in these suits is the State of
New Jersey.”) (emphasis added). Applying the third Fitchik factor, it appears that the BCPO has
autonomy from the State in decisions involving its employees, including Plaintiff. See Coleman,
87 F.3d at 1502 (“[T]he Attorney General does not possess oversight authority with respect to
the day-to-day management of the county prosecutor’s office.”). Under the second factor,
Defendants’ emphasize that the BCPO is treated as an arm of New Jersey under state law. The
Court again notes that such a conception seems to pertain to law-enforcement activities; but even
if it did not, here it cannot outweigh the first and third factors. Cooper v. Se. PA Transp. Auth.,
548 F.3d 296, 302 (3d Cir. 2008) (though all three factors are of equal importance, “how heavily
each factor ultimately weighs in [the] analysis depends on the facts of the given case[.]”).
In sum, the Court is not prepared to accept that the BCPO acted as an arm of the State
when it allegedly had a BCPO employee involuntarily admitted. For purposes of this motion, the
Court rejects the BCPO’s attempt to invoke the State’s cloak of sovereign immunity.
iii. Defendant BCPO Employees
On behalf of the BCPO Employees, the BCPO makes numerous arguments as to why
they may not be held liable. The Court will assess their claims regarding (1) sovereign
immunity; (2) qualified immunity; and (3) New Jersey legislation.
First, pursuant to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, a state official acting in an
official capacity is not considered a “person” under Section 1983. Will v. Michigan Dep’t of
State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). The United States Supreme Court reviewed the principle as
follows: “Obviously, state officials literally are persons. But a suit against a state official in his
or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official’s
office. As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.” Id. (internal citations
omitted); see also Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985) (“[A]n official-capacity suit is,
in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.”).
Plaintiff aims her allegations, in part, against the BCPO Employees in their official
capacities. As discussed above, however, at this stage there is reason to conclude that the BCPO
Employees acted as County -- rather than State -- officials. In other words, official capacity suits
may be the functional equivalent of suits against an official’s office, but in this case, that office
appears to be of the County and not of the State. The County may ultimately be liable in light of
the Complaint’s allegations, as discussed above. See Pembaur, 475 U.S. at 485; see also Monell
v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The official-capacity suits are therefore not barred.
Furthermore, under any circumstances, state officials may be sued in their personal
capacities. Garden State Elec. Inspection Servs. v. Levin, 144 F. App’x 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2005).
“The Eleventh Amendment does not  bar suits for damages against government officials sued
in their personal capacities. In personal capacity suits, a plaintiff seeks to impose personal
liability upon an individual officer and recover from the personal assets of that officer.
Therefore, the Eleventh Amendment is not implicated because the State is not the real party in
interest.” Id. (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985)). Personal liability may
arise under Section 1983 even if the conduct at issue was undertaken in an “official” capacity.
Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 28-29 (1991) (holding that state officials are subject to 1983 liability
even for acts taken under color of state law and within officials’ authority or function).
In this case, the Complaint names the individual BCPO Defendants in both their official
and individual capacities. Despite Defendants’ contentions otherwise, the fact that Plaintiff
names these Defendants in their personal capacities “is more than ‘a mere pleading device.’”
Garden State, 144 F. App’x at 247 (quoting Will, 491 U.S. at 71). Indeed, it further renders
Plaintiff’s claims against the BCPO Employees viable. The analysis on this issue is the same
with respect to Plaintiff’s corresponding NJCRA claims.
Second, the BCPO Employees argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. “The
principles of qualified immunity shield an officer from personal liability when an officer
reasonably believes that his or her conduct complies with the law.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555
U.S. 223, 244 (2009). Qualified immunity attaches where officers act in unsettled areas of the
law, and it recognizes that if judges “disagree on a constitutional question, it is unfair to subject
police to money damages for picking the losing side of the controversy.” Id. at 245 (internal
citation and quotation marks omitted); see also S.P. v. City of Takoma Park, Md., 134 F.3d 260,
266 (4th Cir. 1998) (“Officials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas[.]”) (internal citation
and quotation marks omitted). To determine whether qualified immunity applies, courts often
consider whether the plaintiff has alleged the violation of a clearly established constitutional
right. See Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236; Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001); Wilson v.
Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999).
Here, at this stage, the Court is not satisfied that the BCPO Employees are entitled to
qualified immunity. As will be discussed further in this Opinion, Plaintiff alleges violations of
longstanding constitutional principles, including that against unreasonable seizures. Vitek v.
Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 492 (1980) (noting that “‘[a]mong the historic liberties’ protected by the
Due Process Clause is the ‘right to be free from . . . unjustified intrusions on personal
security.’”). Moreover, at this point there is scant indication that the BCPO Employees acted
mistakenly or in a good-faith effort to interpret a developing or “gray” area of law. Neither the
doctrine nor rationale of qualified immunity yet appear apt under these circumstances.
Third, the BCPO Employees invoke N.J.S.A. § 30:4-27.7, which provides that a lawenforcement officer acting in good-faith, “who takes reasonable steps to assess, take custody of,
detain or transport an individual for the purposes of mental health assessment or treatment is
immune from civil and criminal liability.” This statute does not apply to Section 1983. Bates v.
Paul Kimball Hosp., 346 F. App’x 883, 885 (3d Cir. 2009). With respect to the NJCRA, the
Court finds the statute inapplicable here. Again, accepting Plaintiff’s well-pleaded allegations as
true, there simply is not yet any proffer that the BCPO Employees took “reasonable steps” in
good faith to render mental-health treatment to Plaintiff. Instead, the Complaint alleges in detail
that the named officials had Plaintiff involuntarily admitted in furtherance of a personal favor.
All told, the Court rejects the arguments that the BCPO employees are not subject to suit.
iv. Defendant Speake-Martin
Defendant Speake-Martin argues that as a private citizen who acted in her own capacity,
she may not be held liable under Section 1983 or the NJCRA. Plaintiff’s sole claims against
Speake-Martin are for conspiracy. The Supreme Court has held that so long as the requirement
of state action is otherwise satisfied, private parties involved in conspiracies to violate someone’s
constitutional rights may indeed be held liable:
[A] private party involved in such a conspiracy, even though not an
official of the State, can be liable under [Section] 1983. Private
persons, jointly engaged with state officials in the prohibited action,
are acting ‘under color’ of law for purposes of the statute. To act
‘under color’ of law does not require that the accused be an officer
of the State. It is enough that he is a willful participant in joint
activity with the State or its agents[.]
[Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 152 (1970) (internal
citations and quotation marks omitted); see also Kach v. Hose, 589
F.3d 626, 646 (3d Cir. 2009) (noting that “private party [who] has
acted with the help of or in concert with state officials” may be
treated at state actor)].
Moreover, the parties agree that the same analysis applies to the NJCRA.
Here, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Speake-Martin planned and agreed with Defendant
Molinelli, a public official, to pursue the alleged misconduct against Plaintiff. Accordingly,
accepting Plaintiff’s well-pleaded allegations as true, Defendant Speake-Martin is indeed subject
to liability if Plaintiff ultimately proves her allegations. The Court thus denies Defendant
Speake-Martin’s motion to dismiss the claims against her.
C. The Adequacy of Plaintiff’s Pleadings
Having determined that the Defendants are subject to suit, the Court now turns to the
factual sufficiency of Plaintiff’s allegations.
The Court must assess whether Plaintiff’s allegations “state a claim for relief that is
plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 570 (2007). To state a claim for
relief under Section 1983 or the NJCRA, Plaintiff must plausibly demonstrate that her rights
were violated, and that the persons who violated her rights acted under the color of state law.
Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Gomez v. Toledo, 446
U.S. 635, 640 (1980)). Plaintiff claims numerous violations of her rights, and the Court will
assess such claims in the following order: (1) unlawful seizure; (2) denial of procedural due
process; (3) substantive due process violations; and (4) conspiracy.
i. Unlawful Seizure
Plaintiff claims that Defendants unlawfully seized her. The Court must therefore assess
whether Defendants’ conduct toward her constituted a “seizure” for constitutional purposes.
Under the Fourth Amendment, a seizure takes place when the government intentionally restrains
someone’s freedom. See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991) (“[W]hen the officer, by
means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen .
. . a ‘seizure’ has occurred.”). The Third Circuit has articulated that “a seizure results from
coercive pressure from state actors resulting in a significant, present disruption of the targeted
person’s freedom of movement.” James v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 700 F.3d 675, 681-82 (3d Cir.
2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
To assess whether a seizure has occurred, courts consider “all of the circumstances
surrounding the encounter,” and decide if the “conduct would have communicated to a
reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his
business.” Kaupp v. Texas, 538 U.S. 626, 629 (2003) (internal citation and quotation marks
omitted). The Supreme Court has described facts that may indicate a seizure, including “the
threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical
touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that
compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled.” Id. at 630 (internal citation and
quotation marks omitted).
Here, Plaintiff alleges facts which, if true, constitute a seizure. Plaintiff alleges the
following: first, her supervisor instructed her to attend a meeting with five officials from the
prosecutor’s office, who were Plaintiff’s employers in addition to being law-enforcement
personnel; then, pursuant to those officials’ directive, a police detective took Plaintiff to the
office library where she was only permitted to leave once for the restroom; and finally, most
significantly, that same detective then took Plaintiff to a hospital to be checked in for a
psychiatric evaluation that she did not wish to undergo. Under those circumstances, a reasonable
person would likely not have felt free to simply ignore the prosecutors’ directives, disregard the
instructions of the detective, or flee from the hospital once brought there. It appears, in sum, that
Plaintiff was not free to “go about [her] business.” Kaupp, 538 U.S. at 629.
Defendants emphasize that Plaintiff was not handcuffed or physically threatened. Such
facts are not prerequisites. Plaintiff’s allegations somewhat resemble those made in Shuman v.
Penn Manor Sch. Dist., 422 F.3d 141, 147 (3d Cir. 2005). There, the Third Circuit determined
that a high school student had indeed been “seized” when he was told to stay in a conference
room under a school administrator’s directive. Likewise, here Plaintiff was allegedly detained in
a library under prosecutors’ directive, and added to that, Plaintiff alleges that a detective then
forcibly took her to a hospital to undergo an unwanted examination, where she had to stay until
being discharged. The Court thus finds that Plaintiff has alleged a “seizure.” See Tennessee v.
Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7 (1985) (“Whenever an officer restrains the freedom of a person to walk
away, he has seized that person.”).
As to the lawfulness of that action, seizures typically require a warrant. Shuman, 422
F.3d at 147 (“With limited exceptions, a search or seizure requires either a warrant or probable
cause.”). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants seized her without a warrant or probable cause, and
she has thus stated a plausible violation of her rights, recoverable under Section 1983 and the
NJCRA. Defendants’ motion to dismiss this count is accordingly denied.
ii. Denial of Procedural Due Process
Plaintiff claims that Defendants violated her right to procedural due process by having
her brought to a hospital and forcing her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation against her will. As
a preliminary matter, and as Defendants emphasize, Plaintiff’s Complaint uses the term
“involuntary commitment” to describe what allegedly happened to her. Even accepting the
Complaint’s allegations as true, it appears to the Court that Plaintiff was not civilly committed.
Plaintiff alleges that she was taken to the hospital and forced to undergo a psychological
evaluation, but significantly, she also alleges that the preliminary evaluation culminated in her
being discharged rather than committed. The Court will therefore assess Plaintiff’s procedural
due process claim with respect to the facts alleged, rather than apply the law governing “civil
commitment,” a term less-than artfully applied here.
Courts assess procedural due process claims by inquiring as to “(1) whether the asserted
individual interests are encompassed within the fourteenth amendment’s protection of ‘life,
liberty, or property’; and (2) whether the procedures available provided the plaintiff with ‘due
process of law.’” Alvin v. Suzuki, 227 F.3d 107, 116 (3d Cir. 2000).
Having alleged that she was physically detained, forcibly taken to a hospital, and then
forced to undergo an unwanted assessment, Plaintiff has identified a cognizable liberty interest -her physical personal security -- to satisfy the first prong. See, e.g., Vitek, 445 U.S. at 492.
As to the second prong, the question becomes whether Defendants afforded Plaintiff
sufficient procedural process before infringing upon that liberty interest. To determine what
procedural protections are needed under certain circumstances, courts weigh numerous factors:
“First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an
erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if
any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government’s interest,
including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or
substitute procedural requirement would entail.” Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335
(1976). Weighing those factors, the Supreme Court “usually has held that the Constitution
requires some kind of a hearing before the State deprives a person of liberty or property.”
Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 127 (1990).
Here, Plaintiff has alleged facts which suggest that Defendants afforded Plaintiff with no
meaningful “process” whatsoever before taking her to the hospital and forcing her to undergo an
evaluation. According to the Complaint, Defendants did not provide Plaintiff with “some kind of
hearing,” id., initiate court proceedings, or permit Plaintiff to challenge Defendants’ plan. In
short, Plaintiff was allegedly afforded no procedural due process, and the second element is met.
Plaintiff has adequately pleaded a plausible violation of her due process right, which is
recoverable under Section 1983 and the NJCRA. The Court will thus deny Defendants’ motion
to dismiss this allegation for the failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
iii. Substantive Due Process Violation
Plaintiff claims that Defendants’ conduct similarly violated her right to substantive due
process. To assess such a claim, “the threshold question is whether the behavior of the
governmental officer is so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the
contemporary conscience.” Benn v. Universal Health Sys., 371 F.3d 165, 174 (3d Cir. 2004)
(quoting County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847, n.8 (1998)). Courts answer that
question as a matter of law. Id. “Negligent conduct is never egregious enough to shock the
conscience, but conduct intended to injure most likely will rise to the level of conscienceshocking.” A.M. v. Luzerne Cnty. Juvenile Det. Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 579 (3d Cir. 2004).
Here, Plaintiff alleges conduct which, if proven true, shocks the conscience. “[T]he
substantive due process guarantee protects against government power arbitrarily and
oppressively exercised,” and “was intended to prevent government officials from abusing [their]
power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression.” See Lewis, 523 U.S. at 846 (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted). Plaintiff accuses public officials of using their authority
to forcibly take a public employee to the hospital and have her undergo an unwanted psychiatric
evaluation, all in the furtherance of a personal vendetta rather than a legitimate governmental
purpose. Such conduct would indeed contravene the guarantee of substantive due process. Id.
The Court will accordingly deny Defendants’ motion to dismiss this claim.
Last, Plaintiff claims that Defendants conspired to violate her rights, in violation of
Sections 1983 and 1985. To recover on this basis under Section 1983, “a plaintiff must show
that two or more conspirators reached an agreement to deprive him or her of a constitutional
right under color of law.” Laurensau v. Romarowics, 528 F. App’x 136, 140 (3d Cir. 2013)
(quoting Parkway Garage v. City of Phila., 5 F.3d 685, 700 (3d Cir. 1993)). To prove conspiracy
under Section 1985(3), a plaintiff must satisfy four elements: “(1) a conspiracy; (2) for the
purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal
protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws; and (3) an act in
furtherance of the conspiracy; (4) whereby a person is injured in his person or property or
deprived of any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States.” Farber v. City of Paterson,
440 F.3d 131, 134 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners v. Scott, 463
U.S. 825, 828-29 (1983)).
For reasons largely set forth already, the Court finds that Plaintiff has pleaded sufficient
factual allegations to support her claim that Defendants’ unlawfully agreed to, and then did,
violate her rights. The allegations regarding the orchestrated manner in which Plaintiff was
taken to the hospital support a reasonable inference that an agreement preceded that activity.
Moreover, while much information remains unknown, Plaintiff has alleged who the specific
individuals involved were, the content of their plan, and the narrow time frame -- September 21
to 24, 2012 -- during which the alleged conspiracy and corresponding conduct occurred.
Plaintiff has done more than plead a “conclusory allegation of agreement at some unidentified
point.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007). She has raised her entitlement to
relief for an unlawful conspiracy above the speculative level, and the Court will accordingly
deny Defendants’ motion to dismiss these claims.
For the reasons above, the Court will deny Defendants’ three motions to dismiss the
Complaint. A corresponding order will be issued.
s/ Stanley R. Chesler
STANLEY R. CHESLER
United States District Judge
Dated: February 23, 2015
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