Easthampton nurse files lawsuit against Soldiers’ Home

  • The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke is shown May 6, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2022 8:55:38 PM
Modified: 8/4/2022 8:52:32 PM

HOLYOKE — In a whistleblower lawsuit, a former nurse manager at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke has alleged that the home’s leadership engaged in illegal practices that put residents’ health at risk, miscounted coronavirus deaths and fired her and others who spoke out about problems in the facility.

The lawsuit was filed in July by Kathleen Newman, of Easthampton, who began working at the Soldiers’ Home in November 2020 as the director of clinical education. Earlier that year, 84 veterans died during a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

In her complaint, Newman alleges that Soldiers’ Home leadership fired her in February 2022, ostensibly for swearing during a conversation with her supervisor. However, Newman claims that other workers were not terminated for “far more inappropriate” offenses, and that she was really fired for reporting to outside agencies “flagrant violations that put veterans at serious risk of harm,” including allegedly shutting a 96-year-old woman with dementia in her room and giving her dangerously high doses of a sedative.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Veterans’ Services said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Judith Miller, the lawyer representing Newman, also declined to comment when reached by telephone Thursday.

Newman alleges that she was recruited to work at the Soldiers’ Home, where it became clear to her that the facility’s management didn’t comply with nursing best practices or state regulations governing nursing facilities, according to her lawsuit.

“For example, when Plaintiff started, she did an audit of the Home’s education policies and practices and discovered that none of their policies or practices were up to date,” Newman’s complaint reads. “Plaintiff also discovered that the Home’s administration frequently permitted unsafe conditions to exist in the Home, to the detriment of its residents.”

As an example, Newman alleges in her lawsuit that several members of the nursing staff reported to management that they believed one supervisor to be working “while under the influence of either alcohol or drugs.” Newman claims that she reported the incident to the home’s management and the state’s Department of Public Health, but that the home continued to employ the person.

Newman also alleges that an occupational nurse at the facility discovered inconsistencies in how the Soldiers’ Home was reporting the number of veterans who died from COVID-19. She alleges that in the fall of 2021, that employee was instructed to “stop investigating why infection control numbers, in this regard, did not match her own numbers.” The home then terminated that employee, according to the lawsuit.

In another alleged incident contained in the lawsuit, a 96-year-old veteran resident of the home who had dementia was unable to follow verbal instructions to stay in her room during a COVID-19 outbreak in December 2021. Newman alleges that instead of providing the resident with one-on-one supervision — the appropriate protocol in that situation — the woman was given three doses of the sedative Ativan in an 18-hour period and a staffer put a chair in her doorway to keep her from leaving.

“The veteran not only remained in her room, but she was unable to function and did not eat or drink for about 48 hours, putting her at grave risk of physical harm,” the lawsuit alleges.

Newman alleges that she reported the incident to a supervisor, who did not believe the incident was reportable. Newman told the supervisors she was going to report the incident anyway, according to the lawsuit.

Shortly after that incident, Newman said she went on vacation and, upon returning, arranged with the Soldiers’ Home to take a COVID-19 test, which came back positive. She claims that led to a “contentious” phone conversation with a supervisor, after which she was placed on paid leave and eventually fired for her conduct on the phone call, despite the fact that an investigator with the state’s Investigations Center of Expertise found that she did not violate the state’s “workplace violence” policy.

The lawsuit claims the Home used the telephone call between the supervisor and Newman “as a pretext for termination when its true motive was the fact that Plaintiff had, within the past month, reported to outside agencies flagrant violations that put veterans at serious risk of harm.”

Newman’s lawsuit is not the first that the Soldiers’ Home has faced in the wake of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak.

Earlier this year, the families of veterans who died or were infected during the widespread coronavirus outbreak reached a $56 million settlement with the state over their class-action lawsuit that alleged the state had failed in its obligation to take care of the veterans who lived at the Soldiers’ Home.

In addition to the veterans who died during the outbreak, more than 80 employees were also infected, facing lasting impacts from the virus and the emotional trauma of working during the deadly outbreak. The staffers have also filed their own lawsuit that is still making its way through the court system. They have alleged that they had been forced to work in “inhumane conditions” as they cared for sick and dying veterans, without adequate protection or infection-control protocols.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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