DOTTS v. ROMANO et al
OPINION filed. Signed by Judge Anne E. Thompson on 5/9/2017. (km)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
JASON DOTTS and JAMES DOTTS,
.MAY 1 0 2017
HONORABLE ANNE E. THOMPSON
No. 17-0431 (AET-TJB)
DETECTIVE ROMANO; MARGARET
Jason Dotts, Plaintiff Pro Se
1 Waterworks Road
Freehold, NJ 07728
James Dotts, Plaintiff Pro Se
1 Waterworks Road
Freehold, NJ 07728
THOMPSON, District Judge:
Before the Court is James and Jason Dotts'
civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Complaint,
Docket Entry 1. At this time, the Court must review the
complaint, pursuant to. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e) (2) and 1915A 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 such relief. For the reasons set forth below,
the Court concludes that the cpmplaint will proceed in part.
I I .
Plaintiffs bring this civil rights action against Detective
Romano from Long Branch and Judicial Officer Margaret Hammell.
4. The following factual allegations are taken from
the complaint and are accepted for purposes of this screening
only. The Court has made no findings as to the truth of
Plaintiffs both allege that Detective Romano falsely
charged them with robbery and imprisoned them in Monmouth County
Correctional Institution ("MCCI"). Complaint
6. According to
the complaint, Detective Romano thereafter questioned Jason 1
about the robbery on November 4, 2016. Ibid. Jason was
eventually released. Ibid. Detective Romano interviewed the
alleged robbery victim, who told him that neither Jason nor
James were involved in the robbery. Ibid. However, Plaintiffs
were later both arrested for the crime by Detective Romano and
taken to MCCI. Ibid. Jason also alleges Ms. Hammell "signed off
on a complaint that wasn't carefully read over and/or
As Plaintiffs share a last name, the Court refers to them by
their first names only to distinguish their separate
investigated properly." Id.
4. James also alleges Detective
Romano defamed his character and slandered his name.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Standards for a Sua Sponte Dismissal
Per the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134,
801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to
(April 26, 1996)
("PLRA"), district courts must review complaints in those civil
actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis,
2 8 U . S . C . · § 1915 ( e ) ( 2 ) ( B) , see ks redress against a g ove rnmen ta l
employee or entity, see 28
1915A(b), or brings a claim
with respect to prison conditions, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The
PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss 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 from such relief. This action is subject
to sua sponte screening for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. §§
1915 (e) (2) (b) and 1915A because Plaintiffs are prisoners
proceeding in forma pauperis and are seeking relief from
According to the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v.
''a pleading that offers 'labels or conclusions' or 'a
formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will
not do.'" 556 U.S. 662, 678
(quoting Bell Atlantic Corp.
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To survive sua sponte
screening for failure to state a claim, 2 the complaint must
matter" to show that the claim is
facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMS 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." Fair Wind
Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3
(3d Cir. 2014)
(quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).
In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the
Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the
plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94
(following Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)); see also
United States v. Day,
969 F.2d 39, 42
(3d Cir. 1992). Although
pro se pleadings are liberally construed, plaintiffs "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)
"The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to
state a claim pursuant to 2 8 U . S . C . § 1 915 ( 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) (citing Allah v. Seiverling, 229 F.3d
220, 223 (3d Cir. 2000)); Mitchell v. Beard, 492 F. App'x 230,
232 (3d Cir. 2012) (discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1997e (c) (1));
Courteau v. United States, 287 F. App'x. 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008)
(discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)).
A. False Arrest and Imprisonment
"The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from
detaining a person in the absence of probable cause." Manuel v.
City of Joliet, Ill.,
137 S. Ct. 911, 913 (2017). "To state a
claim for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff
(1) that there was an arrest; and (2) that the
arrest was made without probable cause." James v. City of
700 F.3d 675, 680
(3d Cir. 2012). "[W]here the
police lack probable cause to make an arrest, the arrestee has a
claim under § 1983 for false imprisonment based on a detention
pursuant to that arrest." O'Connor v. City of Phila., 233 F.
App'x 161, 164 (3d Cir. 2007)
(internal quotation marks and
Construing the complaint liberally and giving Plaintiffs
the benefit of all reasonable inferences, they have sufficiently
alleged false arrest and false imprisonment claims against
Detective Romano. Specifically, they allege that he charged them
with robbery even after the victim and evidence indicated they
were not involved. As a result, they were imprisoned without
probable cause. The complaint shall proceed on these claims.
The complaint must be dismissed as to Ms. Hammell, however.
Jason identifies her as a "judicial officer" who signed off on
the complaint against him without investigating it. "[Q]uasi-judicial immunity may extend to professionals who assist courts
in their judicial function." Alfred v. New Jersey, No. 13-0332,
2013 WL 4675536, at *8
(D.N.J. Aug. 29, 2013}
(citing Hughes v.
Long, 242 F.3d 121 (3d Cir. 2001}}; see also Davis v. Phila.
Cty., 195 F. Supp. 2d 686, 688
(E.D. Pa. 2002}
quasi-judicial immunity applies to court staff who are acting in
their official capacities."}. "[T]he 'touchstone' for the
applicability of the doctrine of judicial immunity is 'the
performance of the function of resolving disputes between
parties, or of authoritatively adjudicating private rights.'"
Ingram v. Twp. of Deptford, 858 F. Supp. 2d 386, 390-91 (D.N.J.
(quoting Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, Inc.,
508 U.S. 429,
Here, Jason alleges Ms. Hammell "signed off on" the
complaint, which the Court interprets as an allegation that Ms.
Hammell was the judicial officer who administered the oath to
Detective Romano. See N.J. STAT. ANN.
1 (a}. This is equivalent to a judge's finding of probable cause,
a quintessential judicial function, making Ms. Hammell immune
from suit. See Sewell v. Bowman, No. 1:15-CV-1849, 2015 WL
5997056, at *4
(M.D. Pa. Oct. 14, 2015}; Ingram, 858 F. Supp. 2d
at 390. The complaint is dismissed with prejudice as to Ms.
B. Malicious Prosecution
The complaint could also reasonably be read to raise
malicious prosecution claims against Detective Romano. To
prevail on a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim, Plaintiffs must
set forth facts indicating:
(1) the defendants initiated a criminal proceeding; (2)
the criminal proceeding ended in the plaintiff's favor;
(3) the proceeding was initiated without probable cause;
(4) the defendants acted maliciously or for a purpose
other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and (5)
the plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent
with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal
Woodyard v. Cty. of Essex, 514 F. App'x 177, 182 (3d Cir. 2013)
(citing McKenna v. City of Phila., 582 F.3d 447, 461 (3d Cir.
2009)). Malicious prosecution claims do not accrue until charges
are dismissed. Ginter v. Skahill, 298 F. App'x 161, 163 (3d Cir.
(citing Smith v. Holtz,
87 F.3d 108, 111 (3d Cir. 1996)).
Here the charges are presently still pending against
Plaintiffs; therefore, they cannot meet the.favorable
termination element of a malicious
Bronowicz v. Allegheny Cty., 804 F.3d 338, 346 (3d Cir. 2015)
("'[A] prior criminal case must have been disposed of in a way
that indicates the innocence of the accused in order to satisfy
the favorable termination element.'" (alteration in original)
(quoting Kassler v. Crisanti, 564 F.3d 181, 187 (3d Cir.
2009))). The Court will therefore dismiss this claim without
prejudice. Plaintiffs may raise this claim in a new complaint in
the event they are later able to meet the favorable termination
James further alleges Detective Romano defamed him. Under
New Jersey law,
the elements of the cause of action for
defamation are: "(1) that defendants made a false and defamatory
statement concerning [plaintiff];
(2) that the statement was
communicated to another person (and not privileged); and (3)
that defendants acted negligently· or with actual malice." G.D.
v. Kenny, 15 A.3d 300, 310 (N.J. 2011). Here, James has not set
forth any facts indicting what the defamatory remarks were and
to whom Detective Romano made them. Conclusory allegations that
Detective Romano "defamed" James' character and "slander[ed]
[his] name" are insufficient under Iqbal. Ashcroft v. Iqbal,
U.S. 662, 678
(holding pleading standards require "more
than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me
accusation"). This claim shall be dismissed without prejudice,
and Plaintiffs may move to amend this claim in accordance with
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15.
The Court has supplemental jurisdiction over related state law
claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1367.
D. Injunctive Relief
Plaintiffs ask for injunctive relief in the form of release
from prison. See Complaint
7 ("I want the Court to give me
back my freedom."). "[S]tate prisoners [must] use only habeas
corpus (or similar state) remedies when they seek to invalidate
the duration of their confinement - either directly through an
injunction compelling speedier release or indirectly through a
judicial determination that necessarily implies the unlawfulness
of the State's custody." Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81
(emphasis in original). The Court cannot order
Plaintiffs' release in a
1983 action; therefore, the request
for injunctive relief will be dismissed.
For the reasons stated above, Plaintiffs' false arrest and
false imprisonment claims may proceed against Detective Romano.
The defamation and malicious prosecution claims are dismissed
without prejudice for failure to state a claim, 28 U.S.C.
1915 (e) (2) (B) (ii). The claims against Ms. Hammell and for
injunctive relief are dismissed with prejudice.
An appropriate order
U.S. District Judge
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