A dispute over a small garden trailer parked on a side street sparked a recent lawsuit against the City of Ocean City, and taxpayers may ultimately be on the hook to pay as a result of it.
West Atlantic Boulevard resident Monica Raab is suing the city for violation of her constitutional rights during an encounter with an Ocean City police officer that she says left her with permanent injuries.
The suit was received by the U.S. District Court on Nov. 21, and it seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney's fees and other costs. The suit names the City of Ocean City and Patrolman Jesse Scott Ruch as defendants.
The civil action pits one of Ocean City's prominent families against the city. Monica's husband, Gary, is a family physician with an Ocean City practice and is part of the Raab Family LLC that owns some of the most valuable Boardwalk properties.
According to the account of events described in the lawsuit, Raab was injured by an overzealous Ocean City patrolman who was trying to handcuff her for no reasonable cause.
According to the account of events described in police reports, Raab was uncooperative, hysterical and a danger to her own safety — all because her brother-in-law's trailer was going to be towed.
The suit says Raab awakened at about 9:30 a.m. on May 11, 2010, at her West Atlantic Boulevard home in the upscale Gardens section of Ocean City to the sight of a police officer "concentrating his attention" on a small garden trailer parked in the road in front of the house.
The trailer belonged to her brother-in-law and had been parked there for about a month.
When Raab, age 51 at the time, asked the officer if she could help him with anything, he responded that he was "getting rid of the trash on the street," according to the suit.
See the full text of the lawsuit by clicking on the first PDF icon above.
"I don't care who the trailer belongs to — it is going to be towed," Ruch told Raab after she explained who owned it, the suit says.
A neighbor, Michael Hinchman (who that very day was on the ballot as a mayoral candidate in Ocean City's spring municipal election ... ultimately losing to Jay Gillian), and Raab's daughter Hillary helped Monica Raab pull the trailer over the curb and onto the Raab's driveway.
The suit says Ruch then approached Raab in the driveway and repeatedly asked her name. She responded, "We are the Raabs."
"At that point, without providing any warning or explanation for his actions, Officer Ruch violently grabbed (Raab's) right arm from behind and forcibly pushed (Raab) to the ground while handcuffing her, which caused her to immediately suffer great pain in her arm and shoulder," the suit claims.
The suit says Ruch also pushed Raab's daughter, causing her to fall into the bushes adjacent to the neighbor's property.
"While (Raab) was lying face up on the pavement, Officer Ruch continued to pull and twist (Raab's) right arm over and over again, causing her to repeatedly hit her head on the pavement," the suit claims.
Ruch ignored Raab's "pleas to stop the assault" and her cries for help and an ambulance.
At that point, Ocean City Police Department Lt. William Campbell arrived at the scene and commanded Ruch to take the handcuffs off Raab.
She was never charged with any violation of criminal statute, according to the lawsuit.
Raab's suit alleges violations of constitutional rights and thus is filed in U.S. District Court (as opposed to Cape May County Superior Court, where other civil cases are heard). The counts of the lawsuit include but are not limited to:
- Unreasonable seizure: Raab "was subjected to a seizure as she was unable to leave and terminate the encounter between her and Officer Ruch."
- Excessive force: "At all relevant times, (Raab) was unarmed, not the physical equal of Officer Ruch, and posed absolutely no danger to the safety and welfare of Officer Ruch and all those around her," the suit claims.
- Unlawful search: "Officer Ruch did not attempt to or ever obtain a duly issued warrant justifying his intrusion and entry onto (Raab's) private property," the suit claims.
- Violations of civil rights: Several counts of the lawsuit claim that police supervisors and the city are liable for not protecting Raab's rights, that Ruch was not adequately trained and that "these defendants knew or should have known that certain police employees held vindictive personal animus against Raab and other citizens, which would require some amount of reasonable supervision over said employees." (A 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer article describes one previous confrontation between the Raabs and the Ocean City Police Department.)
The suit also claims that the defendants violated New Jersey state laws in a series of counts similar to the allegations of constitutional violations.
The suit claims Raab suffered "serious and permanent injuries, including permanent loss of ability to function and permanent disfigurement for which medical treatment and expenses are in excess of $3,600 and has sustained other losses and damages." The suit does not further describe Raab's injuries.
The police reports
Ptl. J. Scott Ruch was on patrol at 9:04 a.m. when he came across a trailer with no license plate parked on West Atlantic Boulevard, according to the police incident report he created on May 11, 2010.
"It was out of place for the neighborhood," Ruch says in the report.
Ruch turned on the emergency light strip on the back of his patrol car and checked the vehicle identification number on the trailer. A search of records in all 50 states found no information on the trailer based on the VIN number. Ruch called for a tow truck to take away the trailer, which was "approximately 4 foot wide by 5 foot long, metal with wood flooring and a rear gate."
Ruch was completing paperwork for a summons and for the tow truck when "a woman in a pink night shirt" walked toward his patrol car and asked, "Can I help you with anything?"
See the full text of the police reports by clicking on the second PDF icon above.
In the report, Ruch says he then told her that he was OK and just waiting for a tow truck. After Raab told him that it was her brother-in-law's, he asked for the brother-in-law's name and asked where the license plate was. She told him that he had put the plate on another trailer, and Ruch responded, "Well, that in itself is illegal."
"She became upset," Ruch reported.
"Unexpectedly, the woman walked to the front of the trailer and as she got closer, I recognized her from high school, though I didn't remember her name and hadn't seen her since 1977," Ruch said.
He said he then looked up to find Raab pushing the trailer like a battering ram, trying to push him out of the way with it and ultimately falling backwards onto the lawn as she changed directions, Ruch reported.
"She became irate and then yelled, 'Look, now the hitch is on my leg,' " Ruch said in the report.
"I quickly stepped to the rear of the trailer as I radioed for Sgt. (Brian) Hopely to see if he was available as I wasn't sure of the woman's intentions to blame me for hurting herself," Ruch wrote.
Ruch said he helped lift the hitch off the woman's leg.
"She turned and ran into the front yard of 233 W. Atlantic Boulevard, which I recognized as the home of Gary Raab, my personal physician," Ruch wrote. "I watched as she took her night shirt off approximately halfway across the lawn and walked bare-chested towards the house. She looked back at me, walked in, and closed the screen door."
Raab returned with a cordless telephone and handed it to Ruch. On the other end, Dr. Gary Raab told the police officer that he was leaving the hospital right away.
"I told him he needed to hurry to beat the tow truck," Ruch wrote.
By this point, Hinchman, Raab and her daughter had succeeded in moving the trailer to the driveway, according to Ruch.
"I asked her her name and she said, 'F--- you, I'm not telling you my name ... this is all none of your business and you're not towing the trailer,' " Ruch said.
Ruch reported that Raab then began pushing him our of her way with her forearm. The report continues as follows:
"As she began to force me out of her way, I took control of her arm by the right wrist and she began yelling and screaming. She became hysterical and began pulling her arm away from me. I continued to hold her wrist as to not let her fall. Monica was pulling so hard that her head was arched further down than her shoulders. I became concerned for her safety because she was slapping at my hand and then against my thumb. She pulled and rolled her wrist free, which caused her to fall backwards about a foot to the ground. She placed both her her arms underneath herself while lying on the ground face up. She started yelling and screaming for help, and I could see she was becoming more and more violent. I asked her to please calm down and kept watching out for any combative strikes that she seemed to be wanting to make. Her legs were flailing about as she appeared to be throwing a tantrum. Her face seemed to be wretched into that of a person gone mad."
"Monica probably weighs less than 100 pounds, and though I outweigh her by nearly 150 pounds, she was dangerously not settling down and became enraged, rocking back and forth with her arms beneath her, screaming at the top of her lungs. She began screaming, "Don't touch me, don't put your hands on me." I again asked her to calm down. I attempted to grasp her wrist again, and she and her daughter both started screaming. I managed to get hold of her right wrist and placed one cuff on her to prevent her from striking me. I became more concerned when Hillary began yelling, 'You need to talk to me as I'm the only sane person here.' "
"I thought to myself that this was going to end up being a run to the Cape Regional Medical Center for a psychological evaluation. I looked up and saw Mrs. Raab's other daughter (also named Monica) yelling from the front of the garage as loud as she could, 'This is why we hate all you f---ing cops.' "
Ruch's report then begins to resemble the account in Raab's lawsuit — with Lt. William Campbell arriving, Raab calming down as she recognizes Campbell, and the lieutenant asking Ruch to uncuff Raab. She was then escorted back into the house.
Campbell radioed for an ambulance to assist Raab, and, according to Ruch's report, Hillary came back outside to introduce herself and explain that "mom has been going nuts because of that neighbor over the fence."
Ocean City police then canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed a small number of witnesses, including two men doing concrete work across the street (they said they heard the female screams but saw little of the confrontation), two neighbors who were home at the time (but saw and heard nothing) and Hinchman (whose statement described the scene as chaotic but didn't confirm or deny any of the more dramatic elements of Raab's and Ruch's accounts).
The report from Campbell describes the scene inside the Raab home after the incident:
"After a few minutes, Monica's husband, Gary Raab, a local physician, entered the bedroom. Monica was still upset but had calmed considerably and was able to speak to her husband. Upon his questioning whether she was injured, Monica stated that she struck the back of her head several times on the concrete driveway. Dr. Raab briefly examined her cranium, but relinquished this role upon entry of the Ocean City Fire Department. EMT Winston Roberts also did a brief evaluation, but after being told by Gary that Monica didn't need to go to the hospital, the Raabs were provided a form which they signed attesting to their verbal decision. Gary revealed that Monica came home from the hospital only two weeks ago for treatment related to the stress caused by a neighbor."
Campbell interviewed the Raab daughters and Hinchman and included their statements in his report.
The potential impact
As is common in such cases, the City of Ocean City and the Ocean City Police Department cannot comment on the pending litigation without potentially prejudicing their position in the case, according to City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson.
Paul R. Rizzo of the firm DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis and Lehrer, of Warren, NJ, is listed as the attorney for the plaintiff on the complaint. Rizzo did not return a call or an email last week and a voicemail message this week indicated he is on vacation.
A receptionist at Ocean City Family Practice said Monica Raab will be on vacation for two weeks.
Ocean City recently paid to settle two high-profile lawsuits against the city, one by a (more than $200,000) and another by a former ($50,000). And the city faces a handful of involving public employees.
Although the city is insured by the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) for such lawsuits, Ocean City taxpayers will ultimately pay for them through increased premiums.
McCrosson said that, in any lawsuit, the Ocean City faces the same analysis common to all types of litigation:
- Would a trial become so costly that even a victory becomes pyrrhic?
- Could a victory result in an even costlier appeal process?
- Is the risk of setting a precedent by settling too great not to see the case through to a conclusion?
- What is the strength of the case?
"These are always tough calls, but refusing to settle "on principle" is a luxury a litigant does not always have when public monies are at stake," McCrosson said, speaking only in general about any case.