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Federal judge tosses Holyoke Soldiers’ Home employee’s COVID-19 lawsuit

  • The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, pictured in 2020. Staff file photo

  • Signs, flags, flowers and wreaths are placed at the entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, pictured in April 2020. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Kwesi Ablordeppey, a certified nursing assistant at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, testifies in October 2020 before a joint legislative committee investigating the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2022 3:27:17 PM

HOLYOKE — Employees of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are left to seek other avenues of relief after a federal judge on Monday tossed a lawsuit claiming that mismanagement of the veterans’ health care facility during the pandemic contributed to a deadly outbreak in 2020.

U.S. District Judge Mark Mastroianni dismissed the lawsuit brought in August 2021 by Kwesi Ablordeppey, a certified nursing assistant at the home who had asked for class action status in order to include more employees as plaintiffs.

Mastroianni ruled that Ablordeppey’s complaint did not rise to the high standard that needs to be met to pursue a “substantive due process” claim. Ablordeppey’s attorney, Leonard Kesten, said Tuesday that he and his client are “disappointed in the judge’s ruling. I respect the court, but we are going to appeal.”

Kesten said he will file in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston “shortly” and he is meeting soon with other employees who could launch a separate suit of their own.

Seeking unspecified damages, Ablordeppey alleged that management ignored federal pandemic guidance, withheld personal protective equipment from staff and lied to the state about mitigation measures, creating an unsafe work environment.

He sued former members of the facility’s leadership team, including ex-Superintendent Bennett Walsh and ex-Medical Director Dr. David Clinton, both of whom pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in relation to the outbreak. A Hampden County Superior Court judge dismissed the charges last year, but the state’s Supreme Judicial Court recently agreed to hear a legal challenge that could restore them.

Judge: Outbreak claims ‘disturbing’

The facility’s first case of COVID-19 was identified in a resident on March 15, 2020. By the end of the ensuing outbreak, 84 veterans had died and more than 80 employees had been infected.

“The Soldiers’ Home defendants failed to ask for help, and instead took affirmative steps to conceal the death and devastation they had wrought from the veterans and their families, from employees and their unions, and from the commonwealth itself,” Ablordeppey’s lawsuit reads. “Those affirmative actions led to even more disastrous and horrific consequences. These decisions appear to have been based on a complete disregard for human life.”

In court records, an attorney for Clinton, Jeffrey Pyle, wrote “the complaint fails to allege facts sufficient to hold Dr. Clinton liable for the acts or omissions of other defendants, and (the) plaintiff cannot overcome Dr. Clinton’s defense of qualified immunity.”

Attorney Diana Day made the same assertions about Walsh.

While acknowledging the tragedy of the outbreak and the “truly disturbing” allegations in the lawsuit, Mastroianni supported the claim of qualified immunity, ruling that the defendants cannot be sued in their capacity as private citizens and that Ablordeppey could have quit his job to avoid being harmed.

Clinton and Walsh have previously denied all accusations of wrongdoing. Pyle declined to comment on the dismissal on Tuesday, and Day could not be reached for comment.

Mastroianni rejected arguments that the crisis infringed on Ablordeppey’s constitutional rights. To bring a “substantive due process claim,” the plaintiff must prove a deprivation of rights that is “so inspired by malice or sadism” that it “shocks the conscience,” Mastroianni wrote, citing legal precedent.

Kesten said he hopes the appeals court finds that Ablordeppey’s experience does meet the standard.

“If this doesn’t shock the conscience, what does?” Kesten said.

Further, since the case was not yet certified as a class action, the plaintiff is the only one whose allegations Mastroianni said he could consider.

Ablordeppey’s complaint also relied on legal theories including violation of bodily integrity and state-created danger, which do not apply, according to Mastroianni’s ruling.

“Despite the otherwise horrific allegations contained in the complaint, (the) plaintiff never alleges that he contracted COVID-19 or suffered any other bodily intrusion,” Mastroianni wrote, adding that Ablordeppey claimed psychological harm but did not provide sufficient evidence.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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