Two former Soldiers’ Home employees sue state for $4.5M

  • The Massachusetts National Guard did a fly over of area hospitals with F-15’s including the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke Wednesday, May 6, 2020. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2022 7:00:00 PM

HOLYOKE — Two former employees of the state Soldiers’ Homes who claim they were fired when they raised red flags about “shortcomings” in the facilities’ COVID-19 response have filed a federal lawsuit accusing officials of “gross mismanagement” and violating the law that protects whistleblowers.

The lawsuit seeking $4.5 million in total punitive damages is just the latest in a flurry of litigation that has come in the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak that killed 84 veterans at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke in 2020. The plaintiffs join a stream of former employees who allege their efforts to improve conditions for patients were thwarted by management.

Eric Sheehan, former assistant secretary of the homes in Holyoke and Chelsea for the Department of Veterans’ Services, and Beth Scheffler, former acting nursing director in Chelsea, filed their suit in federal court in Essex County last month. They are suing the homes, the department and its parent agency, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, along with officials who oversee the entities.

Sheehan and Scheffler argue that they were separately fired last year for complaining about the homes’ management to the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General.

The first COVID-19 case at the Holyoke home was recorded in March 2020. By June, 76 veterans already had died there with COVID and 31 others had died at the Chelsea home.

Gov. Charlie Baker selected Sheehan for the assistant secretary role under Veterans’ Services Secretary Cheryl Poppe in December 2020. In the lawsuit, Sheehan said he was “tasked to identify and fix problems” in Holyoke.

“He raised concerns about how staff continued to place infected veteran/residents too near uninfected veteran/residents,” the lawsuit alleges, but the issues were not addressed and he brought his findings to the inspector general for the first time on Sept. 28, 2021.

The lawsuit describes Sheehan’s alleged attempts to inform his superiors that the Holyoke home “was not following regulatory requirements” and tell them about a “lack of leadership, engagement, and sense of urgency” on the part of administrators.

Sheehan said he was also questioning the indoor visitation policy at the Chelsea home and the firing of Scheffler, with whom he had conducted an assessment of the home’s pandemic response that found “antiquated infrastructure” was a “major contributing factor” to the deaths there. Scheffler said she had complained about staffing shortages and problems with medical records.

“Besides the obvious concerns relating to health care facilities during the pandemic, there were other challenges Sheehan faced in his position, including debating policies and protocol related to: screening protocols, the definition of a fever, staffing ratios, infection control protocols” and other issues, the lawsuit reads.

He had a second meeting with the inspector general’s office on Oct. 14, the same day he sent an email to Poppe and others to complain about the firing of Scheffler. Four days later, the lawsuit alleges, Sheehan was fired.

“This email outlined … how he was concerned for the rights of employees, putting the Commonwealth in peril for wrongful termination, inappropriate guidance regarding recommendations as well as how this would jeopardize the health, welfare, and safety of the Home’s residents,” the lawsuit reads.

Scheffler alleges that she “noted numerous areas where evaluation and corrective action were needed to bring the facility current with the regulatory requirements” and that she “raised these concerns both verbally and in writing.”

On Sept. 9, 2021, Scheffler “filed a hotline complaint with the (inspector general’s office) for fraud, waste and abuse” at the home, according to the lawsuit. Eleven days later, Scheffler’s “employment with the Commonwealth came to an abrupt conclusion” and she alleges that she did not receive her last paycheck.

She said she received two conflicting letters about the reason for her termination and she was later told that it was due to a bullying investigation, for which Scheffler said she was not interviewed or offered a corrective plan.

The plaintiffs are each asking for 15 years worth of pay in punitive damages, plus triple payment of their salaries, vacation, holiday and sick time since the date of their firings and other damages. They also want their employment statuses changed to administrative leave and for their lost retirement payments to be restored.

Efforts to reach a spokesperson for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

Families of those who died or were infected in the Holyoke outbreak reached a $56 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the state in May, while staff members who were infected filed a lawsuit of their own.

Kathleen Newman of Easthampton, the former director of clinical education at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, sued the Department of Veterans’ Services in July, alleging that she and another employee were improperly fired when they raised coronavirus concerns. She had been hired in November 2020.

Last year, a Hampden Superior Court judge dismissed criminal charges brought against the former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent, Bennett Walsh, and former medical director Dr. David Clinton. They each faced numerous counts of committing or allowing bodily injury, abuse, neglect or mistreatment to an elder or disabled person.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office appealed the dismissal of the charges and, last Wednesday, the state Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear the case. Court records do not indicate when a hearing will be held.

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

Jobs



Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.


Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
 

 

Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy