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Duplicative Claims Are Dismissible ClaimsJonathan M. Carrillo

The kitchen sink approach to pleading causes of action against public entity defendants in federal court is unwise, to say the least. In an attempt to maximize the number of claims they can assert against defendants, plaintiffs often choose to plead claims against defendants in their official and individual capacities. This is especially true in cases against municipalities, where plaintiffs bring claims against high-ranking municipal officials in tandem with claims against the municipality itself.

Unfortunately for unwitting plaintiffs, this strategy often leads to dismissal of their claims. Our courts consider official capacity claims duplicative. An “[individual]-capacity suit seeks to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law.” Kentucky. v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-67 (1985). On the contrary, an official capacity claim is generally another way of stating an action against the entity. See Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 544 (1986). “As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.” Id. (citing Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471-472 (1985)). A redundant official capacity claim against an individual, where the employing entity is also a party, should be dismissed. See Rodriguez v. City of Camden, No. 09-CV-1909 (NLH) (KM, 2010 WL 186248, at *4 (D.N.J. Jan. 13, 2010)).

Likewise, plaintiffs often bring claims against a municipality and other city entities that are also duplicative and subject to dismissal. For example, plaintiffs regularly sue a municipality and the city police department and assert the same claims against each. Police departments and other municipal entities that provide services to citizens are considered municipal subdivisions, not separate entities. Thus, claims against municipal subdivisions like a police department are often dismissed. In the case of police departments, our courts have stated that they are “an executive and enforcement function of municipal government.” See N.J.S.A. 40A:14-118. As the Third Circuit held in Padilla v. Twp. Of Cherry Hill, 110 F. App'x 272, 278 (3d Cir. 2004): “In Section 1983 actions, police departments cannot be sued in conjunction with municipalities, because the police department is merely an administrative arm of the local municipality and is not a separate judicial entity.” Accordingly, a claim against a police department should be dismissed where a plaintiff has also asserted the same claims against the municipality.

Plaintiffs who ignore this established case law are likely to be on the receiving end of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Where a plaintiff brings claims against a municipal official in his official capacity and identical claims against the City, the inclusion of the official capacity claim is redundant and will likely not survive a motion to dismiss. Notably, individual capacity claims against municipal officials are frequently made based on the same facts used to bring claims against the municipality itself, which also subjects individual capacity claims to dismissal. Plaintiffs need specific factual averments against the municipal officials to hold them personally liable. Therefore, when claims are brought against a municipal official or a municipal subdivision, defendants may be well-served to explore the use of motion practice to dismiss these claims.