Can You Sue a New Jersey Municipality for Violating Your Civil Rights?

Federal law allows you to file a lawsuit against any person who deprives you of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This is commonly known as a civil rights lawsuit because the plaintiff must allege a violation of a civil right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 84 (1988). Examples of civil rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, due process, or equal protection of law.

“[A] local government may not be sued [in a civil rights lawsuit] for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents.” Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). This is in contrast to the general principle of respondeat superior, where an employer can be found liable for the negligence of an employee where the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment. See Carter v. Reynolds, 175 N.J. 402, 408–09 (2003) (citing Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587, 619 (1993)). “A municipality may, however, be sued directly . . . . where ‘the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers.’” Bocchino v. City of Atl. City, 179 F. Supp. 3d 387, 400 (D.N.J. 2016) (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 690).

Municipal liability may be premised on a custom or policy. See McTernan v. City of York, 564 F.3d 636, 657 (3d Cir. 2009). “Policy is made when a decisionmaker possess[ing] final authority to establish a municipal policy with respect to the action issues an official proclamation, policy, or edict.” Andrews v. City of Phila., 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990). Conduct is considered a custom “when, though not authorized by law, such practices of state officials [are] so permanently and well-settled as to virtually constitute law.” Id. at 1480. “Custom requires proof of knowledge and acquiescence by the decisionmaker.” McTernan, 564 F.3d at 658.

Establishing municipal liability in a civil rights lawsuit is a high bar to clear. As one federal court explained:

The plaintiff must show that through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the moving force behind the injury alleged. Specifically, the plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with “deliberate indifference” as to its known or obvious consequences. A showing of simple or even heightened negligence will not suffice. Where the policy concerns a failure to train or supervise municipal employees, liability . . . requires a showing that the failure amounts to “deliberate indifference” to the rights of persons with whom those employees will come into contact. A failure to train claim also requires that the identified deficiency in a city’s training program must be closely related to the ultimate injury; or in other words, the deficiency in training must have actually caused the constitutional violation.

Bocchino, 179 F. Supp. 3d at 400 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original).

In Bocchino, the plaintiff alleged that two Atlantic City police officers violated his federal civil rights in the court of arresting him following his removal from a night club. Id. at 390. The plaintiff named the two officers and Atlantic City as defendants. Id. The court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against Atlantic City, finding that the plaintiff failed to set forth any evidence that Atlantic City had a policy or custom that caused his injuries. Id. at 402.

On the other hand, in Worrall v. City of Atlantic City, the plaintiff “allege[d] that he was assaulted both inside of an Atlantic City night club and afterward by the police . . . .” Civil Action No. 11-3750 RBK/JS, 2013 WL 4500583, at *1 (D.N.J. Aug. 20, 2013). The plaintiff provided evidence that, over a four-year period, one defendant officer was the subject of 21 citizen complaints, 15 of which involved excessive force. 2013 WL 4500583, at *3. In addition, the plaintiff provided an internal affairs report on the complaint of another individual who alleged to have been assaulted at the same location and on the same evening as the plaintiff. Id. While “teeter[ing] on the border of insufficiency,” the court declined to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim that Atlantic City was “deliberately indifferent to the violent propensities of its police officers” including those named as defendants in that case. Id. at *3-4.

Contact an Experienced Civil Rights Attorney

If you or someone you know has been deprived of a civil right, contact an experienced civil rights lawyer at Folkman Law Offices, P.C. for a free case review. Contact us online or call 856-354-9444 today.