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The New Jersey Appellate Division just took a firm stand in support of a woman who claims her constitutional rights were violated when jail officers deprived her from attending religious prayer services which were held in the jail.

Jeanine Anthony was incarcerated at Morris County Correctional Facility ("MCCF") from December 29, 2019, through February 13, 2020.

On April 7, 2020, Anthony filed a Complaint in New Jersey Superior Court in Morris County complaining of seven incidents from her incarceration: on two occasions she was not permitted to attend church; she requested but was denied medication; she was threatened with bodily harm; she was unfairly subjected to disciplinary action; she was denied contact with her attorney; she was not taken to scheduled court appearances; and she was subjected to disparate treatment as compared to other inmates.

The complaint, which sought judgment of $350,000, exclusive of attorney's fees or punitive damages, included seven counts: (1) the negligent, reckless, wanton violation of plaintiff's rights; (2) a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (3) the reckless and intentional infliction of severe emotional distress; (4) violations of several paragraphs of Article I of the New Jersey Constitution; (5) violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act; (6) state-created danger "class of one" violation; and (7) res ipsa loquitur.

The trial court dismissed the entire complaint, finding the factual allegations insufficient to support the causes of action. Additionally, the court held qualified immunity barred claims against defendants, the tort claims notice was untimely, and plaintiff's claims were barred by the statute of limitations under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.

Undeterred, Anthony appealed the ruling to the New Jersey Appellate Division.

In a written ruling just released, Appellate Division Judges Marczyk and Chase agreed that the constitutional rights claims absolutely do have merits, and they reinstated the complaint as to those claims.

A reviewing court must examine the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, giving the plaintiff the benefit of every reasonable inference of fact. Dimitrakopoulos v. Borrus, Goldin, Foley, Vignuolo, Hyman & Stahl, P.C.

A court must search the complaint thoroughly and with liberality to ascertain whether the fundament of a cause of action may be gleaned even from an obscure statement of claim, opportunity being given to amend if necessary. Printing Mart-Morristown v. Sharp Elecs. Corp.

The court is not concerned with the ability of plaintiffs to prove the allegation contained in the complaint, rather, plaintiffs are entitled to every reasonable inference of fact." Green v. Morgan Properties.

The issue is simply "whether a cause of action is suggested by the facts." Velantzas v. Colgate-Palmolive Co.

Applying these well-established principles, we conclude that the trial court's dismissal of plaintiff's complaint in its entirety was based on a mistaken application of the law.

Count One of plaintiff's amended complaint alleges defendants negligently, recklessly, and wantonly violated plaintiff's rights. More particularly, plaintiff alleges that defendants were in a position of trust over plaintiff, who was in their custody, and that they violated several of plaintiff's rights. The amended complaint referenced defendants' "failure to exercise a high degree of care." It also identified duties: "a duty against cruel and unusual punishment, and a duty from infringing on plaintiff's rights to free speech."

Plaintiff alleged defendants breached these duties by imposing disciplinary action, by throwing out witness statements, by disallowing her to call her attorney or make witness statements, and by failing to take her to court. The amended complaint stated the harm plaintiff allegedly suffered as a result: unfair disciplinary action, becoming a target of the officers, hindering of her ability to defend her legal rights, and loss of jail time credit, resulting in more time being incarcerated. 

Plaintiff argues the trial court's dismissal of Count One was improper because, though plaintiff's counsel "utilizes causes of action not customarily seen by Judges," the claim itself is still valid. Plaintiff argues "BREACH OF INMATE DUTY OF CARE IS A VALID CLAIM" as laid out by the "plain meaning of the words and the facts and First Count of the Complaint." Plaintiff also reiterates the complaint sufficiently plead claims for a deprivation of plaintiff's constitutional rights. In opposition, defendants contend plaintiff "fails to identify what rights were violated, how they were violated, when, or under what theory of liability such claim exists." 

In dismissing Count One, the trial court stated plaintiff failed to articulate "who owed a duty to her[,] what the duty was, in what manner the duty was breached, or what, if any, damages were suffered as a result of the breach." This conclusion is not borne out upon a reading of the amended complaint. At this stage of the proceedings, whether plaintiff can prove these allegations is not relevant. Although the complaint is not a model of clarity, giving plaintiff every reasonable inference of fact and searching the complaint thoroughly and with liberality, as we must do under Rule 4:6-2, we are satisfied plaintiff plead the elements of a cognizable claim. Therefore, the dismissal as to Count One is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Count Four of the amended complaint alleged violations of plaintiff's rights under the New Jersey Constitution. Count Five alleged "Violations" of N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c), which is part of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act ("NJCRA").

Because the NJCRA is not itself a cause of action, but rather a statutory mechanism permitting private suit for violations of constitutional rights, these counts will be considered together.

Plaintiff argues the judge's conclusions on Counts Four and Five were unsupported by facts or reasons, and mistakenly placed upon plaintiff a burden to prove her allegations, which is the incorrect standard under Rule 4:6-2. 

Plaintiff argues the deprivation of her right to medical treatment, to religious exercise, and to speedy justice through her court appearances were sufficiently plead in the amended complaint.

Defendants argue the pleading requirements of the NJCRA require an articulation of a specific constitutional violation and then either an allegation of the deprivation of the right or an allegation of interference with the right through threats, intimidation, coercion, or force. Defendants concede plaintiff alleged threat and coercion but argue the amended complaint is devoid of details as to what interference resulted. Alternatively, defendants argue even if the factual allegations as to filing grievances and attending religious services could support the constitutional claims, they do not allege any permanent deprivation and do not meet a "shock the conscience" standard.

The federal analogue to NJCRA is 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and NJCRA claims are often analyzed in parallel to § 1983. In Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., the Supreme Court ruled that § 1983 did not allow local government units to be held vicariously liable for the acts of their employees under a theory of respondeat superior. Plaintiffs must instead allege that the constitutional violations arose directly from actions by the government unit through its policies or customs. City of Canton v. Harris. "The term 'official policy' usually refers to formal governmental rules or practices." Stomel v. City of Camden.

"Custom, on the other hand, can be proven by showing that a given course of conduct, although not specifically endorsed or authorized by law, is so well-settled and permanent as to virtually constitute law." Bielevicz v. Dubinon.

In pursuing either theory, a plaintiff must show "an official who has the power to make policy" is responsible for establishing the policy or knowing of and acquiescing to the custom. There also must be a causal link between the policy or custom and the alleged deprivation. City of Canton. A direct claim against the entity may lie under a theory of failure to supervise where the behavior of the supervisor rises to the level of "recklessness or deliberate indifference." Schneider v. Simonini.

A prisoner's constitutional rights, including the right to free exercise of religion, may be infringed by institutional procedures that "forward the central objective of safeguarding institutional security." Allah v. Dep't of Corr.

An inmate's constitutional rights must be balanced with prison management concerns. Jackson v. Dep't. of Corr.

Here, plaintiff alleged she was denied attendance at religious services on two consecutive Sundays, despite having followed the correct procedure to request attendance. Plaintiff did not appear to challenge the procedure itself as unconstitutional, only that error was made in applying the policy to her on two dates. Allowing prisoners to leave their cells only if they appear on the appropriate list is reasonably related to the institutional needs of the prison. 

Plaintiff did not make out a cognizable claim for deprivation of the right to freely exercise her religion.

Prisoners have a constitutional right to access courts, but their claims must establish denial of that right resulted in some impairment of the inmate's ability "to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and in order to challenge the conditions of their confinement." Lewis v. Casey. 

Here, plaintiff alleged several dates on which MCCF staff failed to bring her to scheduled court appearances. She alleged these absences resulted in "lost jail time credit, causing her to spend more time incarcerated." Taking these facts as true, plaintiff made out a cognizable claim for deprivation of her constitutional right to access courts, resulting in a specific harm related to her confinement. 

Here, plaintiff alleged defendants had a number of policies that caused deprivation of her rights: "a policy of intimidating, ignoring, and simply refusing inmates from making grievances . . . a policy of denying inmates access to due process . . . [and] a policy of lack of accountability [causing] plaintiff to be incarcerated in the same institution where the sister of the man who reported her happens to work as a social worker." 

Plaintiff also alleged defendants' "lack of oversight of its officers" caused her harm. Because the amended complaint asserted the constitutional claims against Morris and MCCF under a negligent supervision theory, we reverse the dismissal of Counts Four and Five.

The winning attorney is Eldridge Hawkins Esq.

This ruling is a big win for religious rights - even when incarcerated.

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