On December 13, 2021, the Borough of Penns Grove (Salem County) agreed to pay $9,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by a man who said that police knocked out two of his teeth and punctured his eardrum during two separate 2018 encounters.
In his second amended civil complaint, Ramon Alvarado, formerly of Penns Grove, claimed that on June 14, 2018 and again on September 22, 2018 he was “assaulted” by “one or more of” the following Penns Grove officers: Joseph Johnson, Nate Pino, Travis Paul, Paul Psensky, Curt Catalano and Chief John T. Stranahan, Sr. (Note: Travis Paul is also referred to within the lawsuit as Paul Travis and Paul Psenski, while listed in the second amended complaint’s caption, is not named within its body.)
In both incidents, Alvarado alleged that police employed flashlights and batons upon him while he was restrained by handcuffs. He said that Chief Stranahan “actually participated” in the latter event. Regarding the June event, Alvarado claimed to have received several injuries, including broken ribs and the loss to two teeth “as a result of a punch to the mouth by [Joseph Johnson]. During the September encounter, Alvarado said that Johnson punched and kicked him in the side of the head while handcuffed, causing him to suffer lacerations, a pinched nerve in his cervical spine and a punctured eardrum.
In a July 8, 2020 opinion, United States District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez dismissed Alvarado’s assault and battery and negligence claims against the officers because he failed to allege in his lawsuit that he provided the Borough with timey advance notice of his claims as required by New Jersey’s Tort Claims Act. Judge Rodriguez noted that there was “evidence that [Alvarado] did in fact timely notify” Penns Grove so he gave Alvarado and his attorney an opportunity to amend the complaint to include allegations that the Tort Claims Act was complied with. The July 8, 2020 opinion also dismissed Alvarado’s claims against the officers acting in their official capacities finding those claims to be duplicative of his claims against the Borough itself. Finally, the opinion dismissed Alvarado’s claim that the officers’ alleged actions were a result of the Borough’s policies and practices and that he was entitled to punitive damages from the Borough.
A September 11, 2020 brief filed the Borough demonstrated that Alvarado did not file his Tort Claims Notice until 104 days after the latter of the two incidents. The Tort Claims Notice was required to have been filed within 90 days, thus making Alvarado’s filing two weeks late.
The case is captioned Ramon Alvarado v. Joseph Johnson, et al, Federal Case No. 1:19-cv-18574 and Alvarado’s attorney was Randy P. Catalano of Cherry Hill. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.
None of lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants or officials named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that Penns Grove or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Alvarado $9,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.