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Ambrose v. City of New York

March 31, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kenneth M. Karas, District Judge


Plaintiff Ronald Ambrose ("Plaintiff") brings this action against Detective Vito Buonsante, "Lieutenant Shields," Detective Jose Rosario, Detective Dan Danaher, and unnamed "officers, employees and agents" ("John and Jane Does," or "Does") of the New York Police Department ("NYPD") (collectively, the "Individual Defendants"), as well as against the City of New York (the "City"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"). (Second Am. Compl. ("SAC") ¶ 8).) The lawsuit, which stems from murder charges of which Plaintiff was acquitted, alleges violations of Plaintiff's rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and under New York state law. (SAC ¶ 1.) In particular, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants subjected him to false arrest and malicious prosecution (id. ¶ 40), fabricated evidence against him (id. ¶ 41(b)), and failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to him or to the grand jury that indicted him (id. ¶¶ 31-32, 35).

Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint includes Section 1983 claims against the City pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). In particular, Plaintiff alleges that the City "failed to properly train, supervise or discipline its police detectives . . . concerning correct practices in the interviewing of witnesses to crimes and identification procedures, and the obligation not to present deceptive evidence to the grand jury or manufacture probable cause" (SAC ¶ 44), and that the City, "acting through . . . the Office of the District Attorney of the County of New York, . . . fail[ed] to effectively train, supervise, and discipline its Assistant District Attorneys . . . concerning correct practices in conducting investigations, interviewing witnesses, conducting identification procedures, handling exculpatory evidence, and presenting cases to the grand jury" (id. ¶ 46). Plaintiff alleges that these deficiencies constituted "policies, practices, customs," or "usages" of the City (id. ¶¶ 43, 45-46), that the City was "aware" that such deficiencies "lead[] to improper conduct" by the City's police detectives and Assistant District Attorneys (id. ¶¶ 45, 48), that the City "acted with deliberate indifference" in not correcting the deficiencies (id. ¶¶ 45, 48), and that the deficiencies were a "direct and proximate cause" of the constitutional harms suffered by Plaintiff (id. ¶¶ 45-46).

Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's Monell claims against the City pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule 12(c)"). In the alternative, Defendants request bifurcation of Plaintiff's Monell claims from his other claims, and a stay of discovery as to the Monell claims. For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' Rule 12(c) motion is granted in part and denied in part, and Defendants' motion to bifurcate and stay discovery as to Plaintiff's surviving Monell claims is denied.

I. Background

A. Facts

For the purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true the allegations in Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint, as described below.

1. The September 22, 1999 Shootings and Plaintiff's Arrest

On September 22, 1999, four individuals were shot in front of 330 East 26th Street in New York County. (SAC ¶ 15.) Two of these individuals died. (Id.) The Individual Defendants and Assistant District Attorney Kerry O'Connell investigated the shootings. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 16-17.)

Twenty to thirty people were present at the scene of the shootings, and approximately forty-five people called 911. (Id. ¶ 26.) None of them, in speaking to the police, "described anything unusual about a perpetrator's hand or arm." (Id.) Rather, "several witnesses explicitly described the perpetrators using both hands and arms during the shootings and flight from the scene." (Id.)

Buonsante ultimately learned that the shootings were in retaliation for a fight that had occurred outside the Cheetah Club in Manhattan on the previous day - September 21, 1999 - at approximately three o'clock in the morning. (Id. ¶ 18.) Buonsante learned that the fight was between an individual named Ramone Cross and his friends, on one side, and a "group associated with the victims of the shootings," on the other. (Id.) NYPD detectives interviewed Cross's "former wife" in order to identify who was with Cross on the night of the fight. (Id. ¶ 19.) She informed the detectives that Cross had a friend named "Ambrose," and she identified a picture of Plaintiff as that friend. (Id.)

Based on this identification of Plaintiff, Buonsante created a photo array containing six pictures of African-American men, including Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 20.) On September 26, 1999, the photo array was shown to Barbara Brown, a witness to the shootings, and Brown identified Plaintiff as "the 'man with the gun' at the shootings." (Id.) Brown did not "mention[] anything unusual about a perpetrator's hand or arm." (Id. ¶ 26.) On the next day, September 27, the same photo array was shown to two police officers who had responded to the September 21 fight at the Cheetah Club, and both officers identified Plaintiff as having been present at the scene of that fight. (Id. ¶ 21.)

On September 27, 1999, Rosario arrested Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 22.) At the time of Plaintiff's arrest, "it was immediately apparent" to Rosario that Plaintiff's left arm was in a hard plaster cast extending from the middle of his upper arm to his knuckles, at a right angle, and in a sling. (Id. ¶ 23.) In an initial post-arrest interview with Plaintiff, at which O'Connell was also present, Buonsante questioned Plaintiff about his cast, and Plaintiff replied that "he was injured in an automobile accident on the morning of September 21, 1999." (Id. ¶¶ 24-25.) Plaintiff had fractured his left wrist in this accident, which took place approximately six hours after the Cheetah Club fight and thirty-four hours before the shootings. (Id. ¶ 23.) At some point, Plaintiff produced - and Buonsante examined - hospital records, an NYPD Accident Report, and a receipt for the Accident Report, which corroborated that the accident took place and that Plaintiff's left arm was placed in a cast on September 21. (Id. ¶ 25.)

2. Plaintiff's Placement in Police Lineup and Arraignment

Later on September 27, approximately five hours after Plaintiff's arrest, Buonsante, Shields, Rosario, and Does conducted a lineup including Plaintiff and five other individuals. (Id. ¶ 27.) O'Connell was also present during this lineup. (Id. ¶ 24.) The appearances of the five other individuals in the lineup were "grossly different from [P]laintiff, and from the descriptions of the perpetrators given by witnesses." (Id. ¶ 27.) The officers "conducted the lineup so that all six persons in the lineup had their left arms hidden from view by being placed inside loose jackets, and did not inform the witnesses [viewing the lineup] of why this was done." (Id.)

Five witnesses to the shootings viewed the lineup. (Id.) Of the five witnesses, two could not identify any of the six individuals in the lineup. (Id.) Two other witnesses, including Barbara Brown, identified Plaintiff as having been present at the shootings. (Id.) The fifth witness, Edgar Rivera, had within one hour of the shootings "positively identified" a man named Samuel Hill, "who bore no resemblance" to Plaintiff, as having been involved. (Id.) Upon viewing the lineup, Rivera did not at first identify Plaintiff. (Id.) Rosario then took Rivera to an office at the police precinct and spoke to him; upon returning approximately twenty minutes later, Rivera again viewed the lineup, and thereafter identified Plaintiff as "one of the shooters." (Id.) Rivera further stated that Plaintiff was "the same individual Rivera had previously identified as being Samuel Hill." (Id.)

None of the five witnesses who viewed the lineup described any of the shooters as "having anything unusual about one hand or arm." (Id. ¶ 28.) At no point either before or after the witnesses viewed the lineup did Defendants ask any of these witnesses whether they had observed anything unusual about a shooter's hand or arm. (Id.)

On September 28, Plaintiff was arraigned on first degree murder charges. (Id. ¶ 29.)

3. Pre-Indictment Discovery of Exculpatory Evidence

On September 30, 1999, Duane Thomas, who had driven the shooters to and from the scene of the shooting, turned himself in to the police. (Id. ¶ 30.) Thomas told Buonsante, Danaher, and Does that Plaintiff was not involved in the shootings. (Id.) Thomas said that he did not see Plaintiff on the day of the shootings and did not hear Plaintiff's name mentioned by any other perpetrator during preparation for the shootings, while Thomas was driving the perpetrators away from the shootings, or at meetings of the perpetrators the following day. (Id.) At some point, Defendants obtained telephone records that corroborated Thomas's account, as they showed calls among the perpetrators identified by Thomas, but no calls between Plaintiff and any of the perpetrators. (Id.)

4. Grand Jury Indictment of Plaintiff

After conferring with the Individual Defendants about the evidence concerning Plaintiff's involvement in the shootings, O'Connell presented the case against Plaintiff to a grand jury. (Id. ¶ 31.) By this time, NYPD had confirmed that Plaintiff had a cast placed on his arm prior to the shootings. (Id.) Some of the witnesses who viewed the lineup on September 27 testified before the grand jury; prior to the witnesses' testimony, no Defendant informed any of them of the condition of Plaintiff's arm at the time of the shootings. (Id.) Nor was the grand jury presented with any evidence concerning the condition of Plaintiff's arm or with Thomas's account of the shootings, the latter of which was not disclosed to Plaintiff's defense counsel prior to the grand jury presentation.*fn1 (Id. ¶¶ 31-32.)

On October 25, 1999, Plaintiff was indicted on first degree murder charges. (Id. ¶ 33.)

5. Post-Indictment Discovery of Further Exculpatory Evidence

On February 8, 2000, Buonsante and Does interviewed Pey Lee, who had provided a gun used in the shooting. (Id. ¶ 34.) Lee stated that he had made arrangements to provide a gun to the perpetrators, that he gave the gun to the perpetrators while they were in a car with Thomas, and that he attended a meeting with the perpetrators after the shooting. (Id.) According to Lee, Plaintiff was not present when Lee gave the perpetrators the gun, and Plaintiff's name was not otherwise mentioned by the perpetrators. (Id.)

In January 2001, Andrew Rison, a cousin of Damon Williams - whom Duane Thomas had identified as a perpetrator - notified the police that Williams, a fugitive, was located in Virginia. (Id. ¶ 35.) Rison also told the police that Williams had (1) admitted his own participation in the shootings, (2) stated that Plaintiff was not involved in the shootings, and (3) expressed his belief that Plaintiff had been mistaken for Williams. (Id.) Rison's statements were never disclosed to Plaintiff's counsel during the pendency of the criminal proceedings against Plaintiff. (Id.)

6. Plaintiff's Trial and Acquittal

Prior to Plaintiff's criminal trial in state court, Plaintiff's defense counsel requested that the prosecution turn over to the defense, as Brady material, testimony Duane Thomas had given before a grand jury. (Id. ¶ 36.) O'Connell argued that Thomas's grand jury testimony was not Brady material, but at a pre-trial conference the court ordered that the testimony be turned over pursuant to Brady. (Id.)

At Plaintiff's criminal trial, Duane Thomas testified that Plaintiff was not involved in the shootings. (Id. ΒΆ 30.) Plaintiff was acquitted on all counts, and he was released on November 29, 2001, after having been ...

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