Pennsauken quietly paid out $770,000 in 2006 to settle female police officer's sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit
I normally do not post settlements of cases that are this old, but the size of the settlement, the nature of the allegations and the fact that the alleged sexual harasser has since been promoted to Police Captain and still serves in that position cause me to make an exception.
Pennsauken Police Officer Susan D. Holtz filed her sexual harassment civil lawsuit on June 4, 2003. Holtz, who was hired as a patrol officer in 1990, said that she was "a very close friend of" Michael Probasco, who was then a patrolman, until she met her husband, Larry Holtz. According to Holtz, her decision to cut off all personal interaction with Probasco so that she could "devote her entire romantic attention" to Larry Holtz "enraged Probasco" and resulted in Probasco spreading lies about her in order to sabotage her relationship with Larry.
After Probasco was promoted to sergeant, Holtz claimed that he used his position of command to try to get back into her personal life. Holtz said that when she rebuffed him, Probasco retaliated by telling other officers that Holtz was a "bad cop" that should be avoided. Holtz claimed that Probasco once came into the woman's locker room when she was wearing only a t-shirt and underwear. She claimed that Probasco unzipped his pants to expose his erect penis and told her "I want you to suck this!" Holtz related another incident when Probasco allegedly stared at her crotch while she was walking and told her "I can see the outline of your lips in those pants."
According to Holtz's complaint, Probasco's harassment started in April 1994 and she felt uncomfortable in his presence through to her filing of the complaint. She said that she was hesitant to report Probasco's "grotesque sexual advances" to upper management out of fear of retaliation because Police Chief John Coffey and Probasco "were best of friends."
Holtz's civil complaint contains many other allegations, only some of which are recounted here:
- Probasco and other officers engaged in "outrageous fraud" by clocking in and the leaving their posts resulting in them getting paid for time that they did not work.
- After being interviewed by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, which Holtz characterized as a "waste of her time" because the the questions "were phrased in a way as to hopefully solicit answers favorable to Probasco," her personal car was "'keyed' down to the metal on the driver's side."
- Chief Coffey intervened in a matter in which the girlfriend of a Pennsauken officer had been arrested in Cherry Hill for buying drugs while driving the officer's car. The officer's handgun was allegedly in the car at the time of her arrest. Holtz alleged that Coffey's intervention caused the charges against the officer's girlfriend to be dismissed.
- Coffey and Probasco allegedly wrote traffic tickets but destroy all the copies except for the one given to the municipal court. This would cause those cited to have arrest warrants issued against them when they did not show up for court.
- Holtz claimed that Probasco, after becoming a sergeant, began a relationship with a married Pennsauken police dispatcher who was later hired as a police officer. Holtz claimed the dispatcher/officer, due to her sexual relationship with Probasco, received preferential treatment.
According to a March 8, 2018 letter from the Township Clerk, Probasco was hired on April 19, 1982 and presently serves as Police Captain earning $145,424 per year.
Holtz's lawsuit is is captioned Susan Holtz v. John Coffey, et al, Camden County Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-3284-03 and Holtz's attorney was Clifford Van Syoc of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here. Of the $770,000 settlement, Holtz received $520,000 and Van Syoc received $250,000.
Probasco was named in another lawsuit filed in 2004 by another female officer named Karen Denelsbeck. Denelsbeck claimed that Probasco, who was then a lieutenant, made inappropriate comments regarding her pregnancy and repeatedly pestered her to go on dates with him. Denelsbeck, who was married to a Evesham officer, said that sexually suggestive remarks made by Probasco caused her to be "embarrassed, upset and scared." Her lawsuit, captioned, Karen Denelsbeck v. Michael Probasco, et al, Camden County Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-715-04 settled in 2005 for $36,750. Denelsbeck's attorney was Anthony F. DiMento of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.
Both settlement agreements contain confidentiality clauses which prevent the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement terms to others, including the media. 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 the either lawsuits' 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. All that is known for sure is that Pennsauken or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Holtz and Denelsbeck than take the matters 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.