Wednesday, August 31, 2016

South Jersey prison guard suffers partial pension forfeiture after guilty plea that resolved sex offense charges.

At its July 11, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees voted to label a little more than three years of a correction officer's service time as "dishonorable."  This resulted in the officer, who had entered into a 2015 plea deal that resolved charges that he had committed sex offenses against two fourteen year old girls, being denied a service requirement.  The Board, however, found that the officer is still entitled to deferred retirement benefits when he turns 55 in March 2020.

According to an April 10, 2015 plea agreement, former South Woods Prison Senior Corrections Officer Alfred Vargas received a one year term of probation and was required to "undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation" to resolve charges arising out of his interactions with two fourteen year-old girls.  A January 13, 2015 written decision by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Robert G. Malestein stated that the two girls had reported to police that Vargas had twice placed his penis in their hands while they slept.  The girls said that one incident occurred when they were 14 and the other occurred when they were 16.  One of the girls said that Vargas "had exposed himself to her several times" between the two incidents.  Judge Malestein's January 13, 2015 decision affirmed the Cumberland County Prosecutor's denial of Vargas' bid to enter into the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) program.

According to the PFRS minutes, Vargas was suspended without pay within days after his December 19, 2013 arrest and was ordered to forfeit his public office.  Judge Mary C. Jacobson's November 5, 2015 Order in State v. Vargas, Docket No. MER-L-1777-15, ordered the forfeiture.

Vargas was represented by Robert J. Luther who is "of counsel" to the Haddon Heights law firm of Helmer Conley & Kasselman, PA.  Both Luther and Yaron Helmer, a named partner in the firm, previously served as First Assistant County Prosecutor in the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office.  Helmer is also facing ethics charges for allegedly working to persuade the Cumberland County Prosecutor's office to threaten criminal charges against two men whose company owed money to Helmer's client.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Woodbridge lawyer accused by ethics authorities of dragging his feet on client's malpractice claim.

On July 25, 2016, the District VIII Ethics Committee filed a formal complaint alleging that a Woodbridge attorney dragged his feet and was grossly negligent in the handling his client's medical malpractice claim.

The complaint--District VIII Ethics Committee v. Ronald Wm. Spevack, Esq., Docket No. VIII-2015-0053--alleges that Ronald Wm. Spevack, who began practicing law in 1964, did not diligently pursue client Charles Logan's medical malpractice claim.  According to the complaint, Logan suffered an alleged instance of malpractice on September 9, 2013 and consulted Spevack about the matter on June 17, 2014.  Spevack recommended that a medical expert--Wendy Weiss of Second Opinion--review Logan's file and Logan paid Second Opinion $1,350 as a retainer for that service.  Spevack reportedly sent Weiss "a portion of [Logan's] medical records and a Wikipedia article" which Weiss, in a July 8, 2014 letter, said were "insufficient" and told Spevack that she needed "complete certified records of Mr. Logan's" September 9, 2013 medical procedure in order to properly evaluate the matter.

According to the ethics complaint, Spevack did nothing further on the case (except issue two unanswered subpoenas to Robert Wood Johnson hospital) until July of 2015 when Logan visited his office and asked for the status of his case.  A week later, Spevack wrote Logan a letter declining to take the case because "the issues of [the doctor's] deviation and negligence are not clear."  But, the ethics complaint noted that at the time Spevack told Logan that the doctor's negligence was unclear, he had yet "provided a full set of medical records for Second Opinion to review" resulting in Spevack apparently having no basis for his statement.

Since the September 8, 2015 deadline for filing the lawsuit was soon approaching, Logan allegedly threatened Spevack with an ethics grievance if he did not file a lawsuit.  Spevack reportedly filed the lawsuit, but listed Logan as a pro se (i.e. appearing without an attorney).  Logan, upon learning that he would need to engage the court and his adversaries without a lawyer, told Spevack "that he would not be able to proceed on that basis."

In mid-October 2015, Weiss, who had finally secured the medical records she needed, found that there was "no foundation for the case."  Logan's lawsuit was eventually dismissed for his failure to file affidavits of merit and to abide by the Tort Claims Act.

In his answer, Spevack claimed that he diligently attempted to get Logan's medical records from Robert Wood Johnson hospital and even paid the hospital's $215 bill for disclosure of the records.  Despite this and several phone calls, the hospital did not promptly release the records.  He also claimed that his pro se filing protected Mr. Logan from losing his right to sue and gave him several more months to secure an affidavit of merit so that the case could continue.  And, since the case was ultimately found to not be viable, Logan suffered no loss even if Spevack's manner of handling the case was subpar.

This is only a summary of the complaint and answer and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the link above. None of the allegations against Spevack have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to District VIII Ethics Committee Secretary Barry J. Muller via fax to 609-896-1469.

Lawyer, formerly of Scotch Plains, charged by ethics authorities with $40,000 escrow violation.

On July 6, 2016, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a formal complaint alleging that an attorney who formerly practiced in Scotch Plains improperly disbursed $40,000 that she was holding in escrow for a real estate purchaser and then "misrepresented that she was still in possession of the $40,000 when, in fact, the money had already been disbursed to others." 

The complaint is against Annette P. Alfano, who ran a one-woman law office at 1812 Front Street in Scotch Plains at the time she held the escrowed funds. In March 2010, Alfano allegedly disbursed $40,000 she was safeguarding for real estate purchaser Jaswans Masson without Masson's permission.  She allegedly disbursed Masson's $40,000 at the direction of her client, Kerry Gillon, who operated The Community Group, a for-profit company that bought, rehabilitated and sold buildings.  When Masson's lawyer, Alan J. Gottlieb of East Brunswick, demanded that the $40,000 be returned, Alfano allegedly told him that the money was still in her trust account even though she knew that it had already been disbursed. The complaint and Alfano's answer are online here: Office of Attorney Ethics v. Annette P. Alfano, Esq., Docket No. XIV-2015-0373E.

In her answer, Alfano admits to nearly all of the complaint's factual allegations.  She claimed that she "believed she had authority to disburse the funds" and that even if she did act improperly, "it was only minor misconduct."  Alfano's defense also noted that she had fully cooperated with ethics authorities, that she did not financially benefit from the $40,000 disbursement and that she "no longer maintains personal office business and trust accounts" because she is now employed by the Branchburg-based Law Office of Peter N. Laub, Jr. & Associates, LLC

This is only a summary of the complaint and answer and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the link above. None of the allegations against Alfano have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the OAE in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Because of EEOC taking 19 years to resolve complaint, woman is still in litigation with state lottery officials for reneging on 1994 job promise.

On November 8, 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) finally concluded its investigation into a Bradley Beach woman's 1995 administrative discrimination complaint alleging that the New Jersey Lottery Commission refused to hire her because she was a blonde.  The EEOC's November 8, 2013 letter is known as a "right to sue" letter and instructs complainants that they have 90 days within which to file a lawsuit.

The woman, Lorraine Scocozza, did file her lawsuit on February 7, 2014--within the 90 day window. According to the federal lawsuit, Scocozza was promised a position collecting lottery receipts from agents who hadn't turned in their sales receipts.  According to the lawsuit, her job was "primarily . . . to convince the agent to agree to cooperate in payment to avoid a visit by the State Police."  In December 1994, lottery officials allegedly reneged on their job promise and Scocozza said that one official told her that "Well, the high ups at the Lottery had a big problem with a blonde woman like you going into Newark."

Discover is now wrapping up and, according to an August 22, 2016 scheduling order, Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert will conduct a status conference on September 28, 2016.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

North Hanover's new police chief topped overtime charts in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

A recent Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to North Hanover Township (Burlington County) revealed that the newly sworn police chief, Theodore Wells, made more overtime than any other Township officer in 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

Chief Wells has been in the news (here and here) after the Libertarian Party's NJ Civil Settlements blog reported on August 12, 2016 that he had twice been involved in lawsuits that were resolved by confidential settlement agreements.

According to an Excel file disclosed by North Hanover Acting Clerk Mary Picariello today, Wells earned an average of $25,945.57 per year in overtime over the three year period.  Patrolman Richard A. Mellor had the next highest average annual overtime earnings of $14,888.40.  Wells' total compensation for 2015 was $107,691.55.

Acting Clerk Picariello also disclosed a PDF file showing the rank of each police employee in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as well as the dates that those employees changed rank or separated from employment.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Man who says he has nothing to do with heroin sues Monmouth Prosecutor for using his driver license photo on "Faces of Heroin" pamphlet.

A West Long Branch man is suing the Monmouth County Prosecutor, among others, for allegedly putting his driver license photo on a "Faces of Heroin" pamphlet that was distributed at a symposium held at the Manasquan High School.

The date of the symposium where the pamphlet was distributed is not disclosed in the lawsuit but the claimant, Robert M. Ferrante, said that he first learned of the pamphlet on September 18, 2013.  In his lawsuit, Ferrante claimed that he "never used or was associated with heroin use" and that the release of the photo has caused "great humiliation, embarrassment and mental anguish" for him and his wife Doreen Ferrante.

The lawsuit, Ferrante v. County of Monmouth, et al, Federal Case No. 3:16-cv-0349, was brought by Long Branch attorney John Jay Perrone.  Also named as defendants are the Manasquan Board of Education, the Motor Vehicle Commission and the Patch on-line newspaper which allegedly published the pamphlet on the Internet.

The Manasquan school board filed a motion for dismissal and argues that the Ferrantes' complaint does not "assert a specific constitutional violation" and merely states that they're civil rights have been violated.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Three Salem County Corrections Officers sue over imposition of minor discipline.

At least three Salem County Corrections officers have filed suit seeking to overturn disciplinary decisions imposed the the Warden (presumably Raymond C. Skradzinski) that they feel are unfair and in excess of what a Disciplinary Hearing Committee recommended.

In the case bearing Docket No. SLM-L-219-15, Officer Brian Pio claimed that the Warden imposed an improper one day suspension to punish him for sending a June 12, 2015 insubordinate e-mail in response to the Human Resources Department's demand for Pio's marriage certificate and his family's birth certificates after Pio claimed that he had already furnished those documents.  Pio said that the Disciplinary Hearing Committee recommended that Salem County investigate why the originally supplied documents couldn't be located but the Warden imposed the one-day suspension.

In the case bearing Docket No. SLM-L-229-15, Officer Joseph Massey claimed that the Warden imposed an improper one day suspension to punish him for reporting to work late and failing to follow call-in procedures.  Massey said that he "overslept due to taking medication" on August 7, 2015.  Massey said that the Disciplinary Hearing Committee recommended a written reprimand but the Warden imposed the one-day suspension.

In the case bearing Docket No. SLM-L-230-15, Officer Sherreece Holder claimed that the Warden imposed an improper three day suspension to punish her for sleeping and eating on duty on October 3, 2015.  Holder said that she was not sleeping but reading the Bible.  She claimed that after the Disciplinary Hearing Committee found that she was not sleeping, the Warden amended the charge to inattentiveness to duty.  Holder claimed that although the Committee recommended a written reprimand on the eating charge, the Warden imposed a three-day suspension--two days for inattentiveness to duty and one for eating while on duty.

All three matters have been assigned to Assignment Judge Georgia M. Curio who referred the cases to mediation.  All three officers are being represented by Christopher A. Gray of Hamilton.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Montclair ex-cop denied "accidental disability retirement benefits" for alleged PTSD caused by traumatic event.

At its May 2, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) affirmed an Administrative Law Judge's denial of accidental disability retirement benefits to a former Montclair Township (Essex County) police officer who claimed that the emotional trauma caused by his February 2009 application of CPR on the body of an already-deceased 9-year-old child rendered him permanently disabled.

In her April 8, 2016 ruling, Administrative Law Judge Evelyn J. Marose noted that former Police Officer Michael Whittle, who served as a Montclair police officer for seven years and previously as a North Caldwell dispatcher for two years, did not apply for disability benefits until February 23, 2012 and did not see any medical professionals about his emotional trauma until April 3, 2012.  Judge Marose also found that Whittle's application was filed only five days before he was found guilty for tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.  These charges arose out of Whittle arose out of a November 2009 incident in which Whittle allegedly found ten bags of marijuana during an investigation but only reported having found two bags.  On February 29, 2012, he was sentenced to two six-month suspended sentences, a $250 fine and forfeiture of public office.

Judge Marose found one of Whittle's doctors, Dr. Alexander M. Golin, to "not be credible."  She noted that Dr. Golin did not treat Whittle but saw him only "on one occasion to complete a form required by Whittle in support of his disability application."  She also found as "unreliable" the opinions of Dr. Michael R. Bizzarro and Dr. Eugene Stefanelli, neither of whom testified at the hearing.  Judge Marose wrote that both Bizzarro and Stefanelli "essentially formed their opinion that Whittle was disabled based upon statements made by Whittle, who sought their medical support for his application for accidental disability pension benefits."

It is unknown whether Whittle appealed from the PFRS ruling.   Whittle was represented by John D. Feeley of Feeley & LaRocca.