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Forrest v. Parry

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

July 10, 2019


          Argued November 15, 2018

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civ. Action No. 1-09-cv-01555) District Judge: Honorable Robert B. Kugler

          Elizabeth A. Rose [ARGUED] Sullivan & Cromwell Counsel for Appellant

          John C. Eastlack, Jr. Daniel E. Rybeck, [ARGUED] Georgios Farmakis Weir & Partners Lilia Londar [ARGUED] Weir & Partners Counsel for Appellee

          Before: GREENAWAY, JR., BIBAS, and FUENTES, Circuit Judges.



         In Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, we were faced with what we deemed "a question of considerable interest in [a] period of alleged rising police brutality in major cities across the country"-what is sufficient evidence from which a jury can infer that a municipality adopted a custom of permitting its police officers to use excessive force? 89 F.3d 966, 967 (3d Cir. 1996). More than two decades later, the interest and allegations persist, and, as it would appear, so does the question.

         The evidence in this case demonstrates that the Internal Affairs Unit ("Internal Affairs") of the since-disbanded Camden Police Department was woefully deficient in investigating civilian complaints about officer misconduct. Citing Beck, the District Court found this to be sufficient. However, the Court narrowed the case to only this evidence, and, as a result, did not consider its significance when combined with the non-Internal Affairs-related deficiencies in Camden's supervision and training of its police officers. This occurred in two phases: first, the District Court unilaterally divided Appellant, Alanda Forrest's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 municipal liability claim into three theories, labeled failure to supervise through Internal Affairs, failure to supervise, and failure to train, and, second, it then associated the evidence pertaining to the deficiencies in Internal Affairs to only the first theory.

         Forrest argues that this resulted in errors at various stages. At summary judgment, it resulted in a grant in favor of Camden on the failure to supervise and train theories. On the parties' motions in limine, the Court improperly excluded evidence that was material to the § 1983 theory that survived summary judgment, and effectively awarded summary judgment on the state law negligent supervision claim which it had previously deemed triable. The jury instructions then confused the relevant law regarding the sole surviving claim.

         We agree. The artificial line, drawn by the District Court, between what were ostensibly theories with largely overlapping evidence resulted in erroneous rulings as to what was relevant, as well as instructions as to what law the jury was to apply. We will therefore reverse those aspects of the District Court's rulings that resulted in error, vacate part three of the jury verdict, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background


         On July 1, 2008, two police officers kicked down several doors of the residence at 1270 Morton Street, Camden, New Jersey ("1270 Morton"). According to Forrest, his encounter with the officers began with him pinned between the wall and the door of the upstairs bedroom, which had been kicked open. He heard his acquaintance, Kennedy Blevins, twice scream, "why you beating on me[?]" Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 64-a, at 105:10-17, ECF No. 144-76. One officer asked, "where the drugs at?" and Blevins twice responded, "I don't know what you talking about." Id.

         Just a few hours earlier, Forrest had just finished work for a housing contractor at a house across the street. He went to 1270 Morton Street to speak with some acquaintances. He and one such acquaintance-Shahede Green-had been on the porch for a while when the two noticed a police car "coming down the opposite direction" on a one-way street. Id. at 96:3. It was around midnight at this point, so Forrest decided to call a cab. The two went inside as Forrest waited for the cab to arrive. While waiting, Forrest heard a number of sounds that caused him to be alarmed, all of which culminated in what sounded like someone kicking the front door.

         At the time, the house was occupied by Forrest, Green, Blevins, and two women. One of the women was known as Hot Dog and the other, Kesha Brown. Forrest left Green and Hot Dog downstairs, and went upstairs to Blevins's room. Brown was also upstairs, in bed in what is referred to as the "front room." Id. at 106:22-23. As Forrest began explaining to Blevins that the front door had been kicked, Blevins's bedroom door was kicked open. Being near the bedroom door, Forrest reflexively stepped back, and was immediately covered by the door. Forrest remained pinned between the door and the wall, fearing that he would immediately be shot by an officer if he came out from behind the door.

         Through the opening between the door and the wall, Forrest heard Blevins's screams. He saw another officer come up the stairs, and moments afterwards, heard Brown scream. Forrest saw the officer "doing something with his arm," but could not make out what the officer was doing. Id. at 107:9- 11. Eventually, the officer told Brown to go downstairs. The officer then entered Blevins's room, where Forrest, Blevins, and the other officer were located. One of the officers swung the door away from Forrest, and hit him in the face, knocking him out. When Forrest regained consciousness, an officer, later identified as Kevin Parry, was on top of him. Officer Parry repeatedly punched Forrest in the face. Officer Parry then handcuffed Forrest, and the officers-Parry and Jason Stetser-dragged Forrest down the stairs. Forrest suffered a laceration to his ear, facial bruising, and injuries to his knees.[1]

         Officer Parry placed Forrest in the back seat of the supervising Sergeant's vehicle. Officer Parry proceeded to tell Forrest that any drugs found in the house would be attributed to him. The Sergeant, Dan Morris, then took Forrest to a vacant parking lot, at which point Forrest asked "I'm bleeding like crazy. Why you got me here? Why don't you take me to the hospital?" Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 64-b, at 134:19-21, ECF No. 144-77. Sergeant Morris allegedly ordered Forrest to shut up, and said, "my officers don't plant drugs on people." Id. at 136:25-137:2. Officers Parry and Stetser arrived soon after, and Sergeant Morris passed something to Officer Parry.

         Forrest was taken to the hospital to be treated thereafter. When the attending nurse inquired as to what caused his injuries, he simply told her that he tripped and fell. The officers had previously warned that if Forrest said any more, they would charge him with having assaulted five officers.


         In the police report he prepared regarding this incident, Officer Parry wrote that he had observed Forrest engaging in a hand-to-hand drug transaction on the porch of 1270 Morton, and that Forrest initiated the physical altercation with him and Officer Stetser. Officer Parry testified to that version of events before the grand jury and claimed that Forrest was in possession of 49 bags of a controlled dangerous substance. Forrest was subsequently charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to distribute, possession within one thousand feet of a school, and resisting arrest.

         Forrest filed a complaint with Internal Affairs on July 21, 2008. He alleged that he was assaulted by Officer Parry "and his partner," which resulted in "a cut ear [that] required stitches, [bruises] on [his] knees, pain in [his neck], and headaches." Def.'s Mot. Ex. 33, ECF No. 138-4 at 59. The complaint went nowhere, so he wrote a follow-up letter two months later. The letter reiterated the assault charges and indicated that Internal Affairs had yet to respond to Forrest's initial complaint. Forrest ultimately pleaded guilty to possession with intent. He was sentenced to three years and eighteen months in a New Jersey state prison.

         Forrest served eighteen months of that sentence. He was released when Officer Parry later admitted that he had falsified the police report regarding the incident with Forrest. Specifically, Sergeant Morris, and Officers Parry and Stetser were three of five officers that were charged with, and pleaded guilty to, conspiracy to deprive individuals of their civil rights. Officers Stetser and Parry admitted to filing false reports, planting drugs, and lying under oath in front of grand juries, at suppression hearings, and at trials. The investigation into their activities resulted in judgments vacated, charges dismissed, or pending indictments forfeited in over 200 criminal cases. As to Forrest in particular, Officer Parry admitted that he did not observe a hand-to-hand drug transaction, but falsely included that in the report he had prepared.[2]


         While still in prison, Forrest brought this action in federal court in the District of New Jersey. By April 2015, his was one of approximately 89 lawsuits brought against the City of Camden ("Camden") based on the actions of the above-referenced officers. Camden proposed a global settlement for these suits, [3] but Forrest opted out. He moved forward with his claims, which included a municipal liability claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a conspiracy claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), and a state law claim for negligent supervision.[4] Camden moved for summary judgment on all counts in March of 2015. Despite the breadth of Camden's motion, its brief only mentioned Forrest's municipal liability claim under § 1983.

         Forrest responded in kind, with a singular focus on his § 1983 claim. His brief opposing summary judgment divided that claim into two: first, he argued that, through its policy or custom of permitting officers to be "essentially unsupervised," Camden was "the moving force" behind the constitutional deprivation of his rights, Pl.'s Resp. Br. 30, ECF No. 144; and second, that Camden's failure to train and supervise their officers constituted "a deliberate indifference to the rights of persons those officers would come into contact with," id. at 34. The evidence he cited reflects the police department's troubled history in the years leading up to Forrest's arrest, and is best described in six segments, all of which pertain to Camden's supervision and investigation of its officers.

         First, the New Jersey Attorney General ("NJAG") had been commissioned to conduct a review of Camden's police operations on five separate occasions prior to Forrest's arrest, in 1986, 1996, 1998, 2002 and, most recently, 2006. The NJAG twice appointed the Camden County Prosecutor to oversee the police department, once in 1998, and the other in 2003. One of the NJAG reports warned that Camden's failure to commit manpower and resources to proactively managing police misconduct would place it "in the position of failing to adequately protect the civil rights of its citizens and sets the stage for significant civil liability." App. 128. More specifically, with a backlog of over 350 uninvestigated complaints in 2002, the same report expressly cautioned:

The number of open investigations is simply unacceptable and overwhelms whatever progress the unit may have accomplished since our last review. . . . The failure to immediately address the complaint backlog and, over the longer term, ensure that the backlog does not reoccur on a regular basis, could lead one to conclude that the City of Camden and the police department are deliberately indifferent to the conduct of its police officers and the civil rights of its citizens.

         App. 123 (emphases added).

         Second, Camden did not address the backlog. Rather, it maintained an extensive, recurring backlog in the years leading up to Forrest's arrest. The backlog was as high as 487 complaints in 2004, and 461 in 2005, and, though declining, remained in 2006 and 2007, at 205, and 175, respectively. As to complaints regarding excessive force, which Forrest's complaint and follow-up letter alleged, Camden was investigating and closing a mere fraction, and sustaining an even smaller number. Taken together, Camden sustained about 1% (7 of 622) of the complaints alleging serious misconduct from 2004 to 2008, consisting of excessive force, improper arrest, improper search, and differential treatment.[5]

         Third, the evidence suggests that the investigations that were conducted were seriously deficient. A representative example is an Internal Affairs investigative memorandum where the investigator did not interview witnesses, but rather solely based the determination on the incident reports authored by the officers involved. The memorandum derived from an investigation into a complaint filed against Officers Stetser and Parry about a year before Forrest's arrest and which contained allegations that were nearly identical to Forrest's. Indeed, the complainant alleged the officers planted drugs on him. The Internal Affairs investigator concluded that this complaint was "unfounded," which means that the complainant was "lying, more or less." Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 48, at 30:11-15, ECF No. 144-27. This finding was premised on the incident report prepared by Officer Parry, which stated that he and Officer Stetser observed the complainant engage in a drug transaction in an alleyway. The investigation into this complaint revealed that two similar complaints had been filed against Officer Stetser, and that the incident report for both-prepared by Stetser-also stated that each complainant was separately observed engaging in a drug transaction.[6]

         The fourth segment is the testimony of former high officials in the police department, including the former Chief of Police, a former Deputy Chief, the former Supercession Executive, [7] and the Sergeant who took over Internal Affairs in 2009. Their combined testimony reflects that, in the years leading up to and including the year of Forrest's arrest, there were deficiencies with how the department tracked officer whereabouts, there were no performance reviews (contrary to recommendations by the 2006 NJAG report) and the sergeant-to-officer ratio was two to three times more than recommended.

         Specifically, John Scott Thomson ("Chief Thomson"), who became Chief of the now-defunct Camden Police Department in 2008 and is now Chief of the newly-established Camden County Police Department, testified. He explained that, prior to his taking over the department and at the time of Forrest's arrest, the police department "relied upon what you wrote on your log to determine where you were" and that "an officer could [theoretically] write anything they wanted down [, since] there just wasn't a checks and balance (sic) on it." Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 42-a, at 57:11-13, 65:5-8 ECF No. 144-16. The Supercession Executive testified that he was not aware of another major police department that did not have a performance evaluation system. Yet despite his and the NJAG's recommendations, Camden failed to implement such a system throughout the entirety of his term.

         Edward Hargis, who was Deputy Chief from 2004 through January of 2008, doubled down on that testimony, stating, "[a]fter [the NJAG 2006 report] was issued, we started designing a performance evaluation [system], but then it did not become much of a concern." Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 40, at 35:15-36:17, ECF No. 144-8. Along those lines, the Sergeant who took over Internal Affairs in 2008 testified that the officer-to-sergeant ratio is supposed to be five to seven officers to a sergeant. Yet, between 2004 and 2009, the Supercession Executive stated that "they were woefully over in number" in some commands, with "12, 15 plus to a sergeant." Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 41-b, at 137:1-6, ECF No. 144-13.

         Chief Thomson ultimately commented that one of the most pressing problems facing the department when he took over in 2008 was a "culture of apathy and lethargy"-by which he meant that there were no "mechanisms of accountability," and, as such, "CPD was an organization in which you could have the greatest cop in the world or the laziest cop in the world . . . ." Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 41-c, at 37:23-39:4, ECF No. 144-15.

         Fifth, Officers Parry and Stetser were aware of the alleged inadequacies in supervision. Officer Parry explained that he continued to engage in illicit behavior even when Sergeant Morris could no longer cover for him as his supervisor. When asked whether he was concerned that a Sergeant who was not a party to the conspiracy would "discover what was going on," Officer Parry responded, "No. . . . Because, like I said, nobody seemed to care." Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 68, at 36:2 to 37:7, ECF No. 144-87. He noted that, in fact, supervision was worse after Sergeant Morris stopped supervising him, stating:

Because the more sergeants had to do, the more that-you know, the more paperwork that had to be completed for our squad, the less they were on the street and there was no supervision for them . . . [B]ecause before if you were on regular patrol, if you were at a job, a sergeant was on the street with you. They would show up a lot of times. Sergeants were getting so, you know, backed up with paperwork, they were really never around. . . . These guys, like I said, they would take their liberties because they knew that nobody was going to be around and they had to answer no questions.

Id. at 28:22 to 29:17. And when Sergeant Morris was their supervisor, Officer Parry testified that he and Officer Stetser had no concern about their misconduct, as it was very rare that a Captain or Lieutenant would show up or review their reports. Nor did concern about complaints being filed with Internal Affairs ever cross their mind. Worse yet, Officer Stetser also testified that, Lieutenant Pike, his supervisor at one point, "most likely" knew that he was writing false reports and accepted them. Pl.'s Resp. Br. Ex. 54-a, at 40:16-18, ECF No. 144-43.

         Sixth, Officer Vautier, a fellow officer at the time, testified about two incidents in which Officer Stetser engaged in questionable behavior in front of his superiors without reprimand. The first took place in Spring of 2007 when Officer Stetser put drugs in a Lieutenant's bag in front of the entire squad as a prank. According to the officer, the Lieutenant discovered this and did nothing. The officer also testified that he reported this, as well as that Officer Stetser bragged about passing out drugs at parties, to a Sergeant within Internal Affairs. The Sergeant responded by confirming that there had been other complaints about Officer Stetser's passing out drugs at parties, but never wrote anything down and kept the report off the record. The second incident was in May of 2007, and involved a Sergeant who conducted an integrity test on Officer Stetser, whereby he placed a precise amount of an illegal substance in a bag and handed it to Officer Stetser to turn it in before the end of the day. Officer Stetser failed-he was given 45 bags and only turned in 30.

         * * * * *

         Camden prevailed. The District Court granted partial summary judgment. It divided Forrest's § 1983 claim into three theories that it devised. Each theory was then associated with a specific subset of the above segments, without consideration of the segments' combined impact on any particular theory. The result is that, along with Forrest's state law negligent supervision claim, only one of the theories was considered to have the evidentiary support necessary to survive summary judgment. This surviving theory was then narrowly framed as a failure to supervise through the Internal Affairs process, which again reflected the Court's view that supervision-related deficiencies that were apparent elsewhere were not relevant to the incident with Forrest.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Camden on the § 1983 theory that was presented to them. In parts one and two of the verdict form, it unanimously found that Officers Stetser and Parry violated Forrest's Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force and to be free from false arrest. But, in part three, the jury found that Forrest had not proved that these deprivations of his constitutional right resulted from Camden's actions.

         Forrest appealed.

         II. Discussion[8]

         Forrest challenges the District Court's rulings at various stages of the underlying proceedings. At summary judgment, he argues that the District Court erred in granting Camden's motion on any portion of his § 1983 claim. Regarding the Court's rulings at the motions in limine hearing, he argues that it effectively awarded summary judgment on his state law negligent supervision claim, and improperly excluded evidence that was material to the remaining portion of his § 1983 claim. Lastly, Forrest contends that the Court issued jury instructions that were erroneous and prejudicial as to the § 1983 claim.

         We agree that there were several errors below, beginning with some of the District Court's rulings at summary judgment. Indeed, the Court unilaterally divided Forrest's claim into three theories it devised-failure to supervise through the Internal Affairs process, failure to supervise, and failure to train. To support that division, the District Court considered the Internal Affairs-related evidence-consisting of segments one through four-as only supporting the first theory. In turn, the first theory was the only that survived summary judgment. We conclude that aspects of all three theories should survive when the evidence, consisting of segments one through six, is considered in its entirety. Moreover, the District Court's subsequent efforts to exclude the segments that supported the theories that did not survive summary judgment resulted in erroneous evidentiary rulings as to what was relevant, as well as incorrect instructions as to what claims the jury was required to ...

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