Friday, January 2, 2015

Ocean County secretly pays $25,000 to settle inmate's excessive force suit against jail guard.

On November 26, 2014, the Ocean County Department of Corrections agreed to pay $25,000 to a county jail inmate who claimed that he was assaulted by a jail guard.  Additionally, the jail guard was charged with aggravated assault and resigned from his job after entering the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI).

In his suit, Armando Penales said that on December 22, 2012, while he was in the Ocean County Jail awaiting sentencing on a robbery charge, he was assaulted "without justification" by Corrections Officer Timothy Browning.  He also claims that he was denied medical treatment for the injury he received and that Browning filed a disciplinary charge against him for "Refusing to Obey an Order of any Staff Member" which was later dismissed.

Court records also reveal that Browning, who was 49 years old at the time of the incident, was charged with Aggravated Assault by jail officials.   In August 2013, Browning was accepted into the PTI Program.  As a condition of his acceptance, Browning had to pay $657.66 in restitution and agreed to "resign his position as a corrections officer with the Ocean County Department of Corrections and agree not to seek future public employment in New Jersey."

Also named in the suit was Ocean County Jail Warden Theodore Hutler.

The case is captioned Penales v. Ocean, Federal Case No. 3:14-cv-01277 and Penales' attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.  Case documents, including the criminal charges and PTI enrollment paperwork, are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Penales's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $25,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Ocean or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Ocean or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Penales $25,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle 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 settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.