What’s New in New Jersey Case Law: The New Jersey Supreme Court Grants Certification on Issues Involving the Willful Misconduct of a Public Actor Section of the New Jersey Tort Claim Act

Toto v. Ensuar, et al., Docket No. 61000430 (2007).

In a case arising out of the competing interests between the limitations on liability afforded to public officials and a citizens’ rights of recovery when they are injured due to the public officials’ willful misconduct, the New Jersey Supreme Court seeks to clarify an apparent discord in the law involving the willful misconduct of a public actor.

This is a case that involves important civil rights issues and a petition to clarify an issue of great public importance; the clarification of the New Jersey Supreme Court case Delacruz v. Borough of Hillsdale, 183 N.J. 149 (2005), and the role that the Court’s dicta plays in expanding the verbal threshold requirements of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, to all acts of willful misconduct by public officials, notwithstanding an apparent legislative intent to the contrary, N.J.S.A. 59:3-14(a).

In the Court below, the Appellate Division affirmed that it will require all willful misconduct claims against a public employee to vault the verbal threshold provision of the New Jersey Tort Claim Act and in effect virtually abolished the statutory intent of 59:3-14(a), based solely on the dicta provided by New Jersey’s highest Court in Delacruz.  The dicta inDelacruz brings many cases to a crossroads without an apparent direction.

In Delacruz, the Court held that the Tort Claims Act’s verbal threshold applies to common law false arrest/false imprisonment claims.  Id. at 153. In that case, Plaintiffs, an arrestee and his wife, were stopped by the police when the officers mistakenly believed that one of the occupants was involved in an earlier burglary. Id. at 155-60. The arrestee claimed that the rough handling of the officers required him to seek medical attention. Id. Thereafter, Plaintiffs sued defendants, municipalities, police departments and officers for false arrest under state law and 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983.  Id.  The federal claim did not advance and the Delacruz Court solely addressed the issue of false arrest/false imprisonment and nothing else. The relevant issue before the Court was whether the verbal threshold of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) applies to common law false arrest and false imprisonment claims against a police officer.  The Supreme  Court stated:

Finally the need to vault the verbal threshold is not limited to false arrest or false imprisonment claims, the act makes no such distinctions and, instead treats all torts similarly.  The clear terms of the Tort Claims Act require that all claims – including those for false arrest and false imprisonment – must vault the threshold in order to be cognizable.

Id. at 164.

The trial court and Appellate Division below both conceded that the “all claims” language above is dicta and recognized that section 59:3-14 was not before this Court. Despite the statutory reach of 59:3-14, the lower courts’ were compelled by this dicta to require a vaulting of the verbal threshold based upon the above finding in Delacruz, even where the public official acted in willful misconduct. As a result, the dicta in Delacruzhas steered the courts in a direction where loggerheads exist between the interpretation of the Verbal Threshold Provision against the statutory reach of 59:3-14, and this Court’s holding in Tice v. Cramer, 133 N.J. 347, 375 (1993)and its progeny.

A clarification of Delacruz and its reach is necessary by the Court as the future of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act and case precedent hang in the balance without an appropriate weight to allow for proper future analysis.