Filing an Internal Affairs Complaint with Police Department Not “Substantially Comply” with Tort Claims Act Notice Requirement

By: Betsy G. Ramos

Plaintiff Malik Macklin alleged that three Camden County Police Officers used excessive force when they assaulted and arrested him without probable cause as he was walking down the street and, as a result, he suffered injuries. Less than one month later, he reported the incident to the Camden County Police Department’s internal affairs department. Approximately 2 years later in Macklin v. County of Camden, No. 15-7641, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83581 (D.N.J. June 28, 2016), the plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the three officers, along with the County, the police department and the chief of police, alleging claims under the federal and New Jersey constitutions, as well as various state law tort claims. The defendants filed an initial motion to dismiss the state law claims, arguing that the plaintiff’s complaint should be dismissed due to his failure to file the required notice under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“TCA.”)

Plaintiff claims that he was walking home after a basketball game when he was stopped by a police car with several police officers inside. The encounter escalated from questioning to the officers allegedly, without provocation, throwing plaintiff to the ground and assaulting him with punches and kicks until Plaintiff’s family members came to the scene. Plaintiff was arrested and charged with resisting arrest, aggravated assault, obstruction of justice, and eluding an officer of the law, but he was later exonerated by a jury. Plaintiff claims to have suffered bodily injuries, emotional distress, and pain and suffering.

Shortly after the incident occurred, the Plaintiff and his mother filed a complaint with the Camden County Police Department. His mother complained that her son was arrested but that he was targeted and mistreated physically. Additionally, Plaintiff reported the excessive force incident to a detective in the Office of Internal Affairs. About 2 years after the incident, the Plaintiff filed suit, asserting claims for excessive force and negligent hiring and training under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions, as well as common law tort claims for assault, negligence, and abuse of process.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim as to the state law claims on the basis that the Plaintiff failed to comply with the notice requirement of the TCA. The TCA bars claims against public entities unless specific information concerning the claim is presented to the public entity within 90 days of the claim’s accrual.

These specific notice requirements serve several purposes. They allow the public entity to investigate the claim when the facts are fresh, provide the opportunity to settle meritorious claims, and afford them an opportunity to correct the conditions which give rise to the claim, and inform the entity in advance as to the expected liability that it may be expected to meet.

It is undisputed that the Plaintiff did not file a notice of claim with the Camden Police Department. However, the plaintiff and his mother did make written and verbal complaints. The question before the court was whether those complaints substantially complied with the TCA’s notice requirement.

Plaintiff argued that the complaints lodged by him and his mother to the Internal Affairs Department substantially complied with the notice requirement because they informed the Camden County Police Department of the specifics of his claim within 90 days of the incident. He also claims that, in their complaints, he described his injuries. Further, it was sufficient for IA to conduct an investigation of the officers’ alleged misconduct.

However, the District Court found that, notwithstanding the specificity of the report to the police department, the written complaints did not substantially comply with the notice requirement because they failed to give notice of a potential civil suit for damages and the amount of the damages claimed. The purpose behind this notice requirement is not only to allow the public entity time to investigate the claim but also to advise the public entity of the intent to make a claim. Such information permits the public entity sufficient time to prepare a defense, preserve evidence, examine its liabilities and indebtedness, and settle meritorious suits.

Here, the complaint to the Internal Affairs department makes no mention of civil liability. It was just a request for the police department to look into an alleged incident of misconduct of its officers. The court noted that not every civilian complaint to the police department results in the filing of a civil lawsuit and the defendant is not required to interpret the Plaintiff’s complaint to investigate an incident as an indication of future litigation.

Accordingly, the District Court found that the filing of the complaints with the Internal Affairs department did not substantially comply with the notice requirements of the Tort Claims Department. Hence, the defendants’ motion to dismiss the state law claims was granted.