A recent decision by the Appellatte Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed pre-trial dismissal of a lawsuit against a public entity base on a public employee's exercise of discretionary functions, which is immune from liability under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act.

The case, Metta v. Middletown Township et al, Docket No. A-6138-11T2, which was successfully argued on behalf of Middletown Township by Christine G. Hanlon of Archer & Greiner P.C., is noteworthy in that it is among the first to provide interpretation of another Appellate Division ruling earlier in the year in Henebema v. South Jersey Transit Authority et al, 430 N.J. Super. 485 (App. Div. 2013). The Henebema ruling has been interpreted as holding that juries, and not judges, are to determine public entity tort liability.


Facts of the Case


In Metta, the plaintiff filed suit against the Township of Middletown, its police department and individual police officers on the grounds that the police department failed to protect him in an altercation with his girlfriend's ex-husband during a parenting time exchange outside police headquarters.


The case stemmed from an incident in September 2008 when the plaintiff, Dante Metta, accompanied his girlfriend and her then 5-year-old daughter to the Middletown Police Department parking lot, where, by pre-arrangement, the girl's father was to pick her up. Prior to the parenting time exchange, the father entered the police station and asked the desk duty officer, who was on "light duty" assignment due to an injury, to go outside and observe the exchange, which the officer did.


While the girl's mother remained behind taking a video of the exchange, the plaintiff walked the girl to where her father was waiting with the police officer. The plaintiff and the girl's father began fighting and fell to the ground, while the mother continued to record the incident despite the officer's pleas for her to attend to the child. The officer called for backup and within minutes, additional police officers arrived and separated the two men. Both men were issued summonses for disorderly conduct and were later found guilty after trial.


Plaintiff then filed suit against the Middletown defendants alleging that they failed to adequately protect him from the girl's father, resulting in "severe and permanent" injury to his thumb. Plaintiff claimed that the officers were negligent in the performance of "ministerial" duties and therefore, were not entitled to the immunity afforded by section 59:5-4 of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act.


Public Entity Liability Under the N.J. Tort Claims Act


Defendants filed for summary judgment after the close of discovery on the grounds that the conduct of the officers was discretionary in nature, rather than ministerial, and therefore the officers and Middletown were entitled to immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. Under the Act, a public entity is not liable for discretionary conduct unless its actions were "palpably unreasonable;" however, actions deemed ministerial in nature are held to the ordinary negligence standard.


The trial court agreed with defendants and dismissed Metta's complaint, finding that the assignment of a "light duty" officer to the desk that evening and the actions of the officers in dealing with the altercation were all "discretionary activities" entitling the Middletown defendants to immunity from suit.  Additionally, the trial court held that dismissal was appropriate because plaintiff had failed to produce an expert who could testify that the Middletown defendants breached any duty to the plaintiff.


On appeal, plaintiff argued that the acts of the officers were ministerial in nature and that summary judgment was not appropriate. Furthermore, the plaintiff argued that the Appellate Division's decision in Henebema required reversal of the trial court's decision because the issue of whether the conduct of the defendants was ministerial or discretionary must be put before a jury.


The Appellate Division disagreed. The court distinguished the case from Henebema, ruling that in the Metta case, there were no factual issues in dispute that created a jury question as to whether the actions of the officers were ministerial or discretionary in nature.  The court held that the officers' actions were "plainly discretionary," rather than ministerial, and that the officer monitoring the custody exchange had to make decisions on a moment-by-moment basis. The court found that because there were no standard operating procedures (SOPs), policies, or guidelines for responding to walk-in requests for custody exchange monitoring, or any expert report or testimony indicating that anything the municipal defendants did was improper, the matter was ripe for summary judgment.