Governor Charlie Baker and his state health and human services chief lacked the authority to fire Bennett Walsh as superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where at least 76 elderly veterans have died of COVID-19 amid the pandemic, a judge ruled Monday.
Hampden Superior Court Judge John S. Ferrara wrote in his 12-page ruling that the June firing of Walsh — in the form of a letter signed by HHS Secretary Marylou Sudders and endorsed by Baker — was “invalid and is void.”
However, Ferrera wrote that had Baker asked the home’s board of trustees to fire the superintendent, “there was no reason to believe that the Board would not have complied.” Baker appoints the home’s board.
Ferrara wrote that the board, not Sudders, was the “proper vehicle” by which Baker could have sought the firing of Walsh, who initially brought suit against the state in April after he was put on leave.
It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday if Walsh will seek reinstatement in light of the ruling.
His lawyer and uncle, William M. Bennett, said in a statement that Walsh for months has been “vilified” by Baker, Sudders, and others. Bennett said he hoped the ruling “will allow people to consider that perhaps that criticism is unfair and that the actual story of what happened has not yet been understood. A true inquiry into the Covid outbreak at the Soldiers' Home should focus on the science.”
Asked for comment Tuesday, the Baker administration sent a brief response attributed to a spokesman for Sudders’ office, which said only that officials were “reviewing” the ruling.
In a scathing report in June, former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein found that the home’s management committed glaring errors, including when it merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe. Pearlstein’s report called the conditions in the combined unit “deplorable” with insufficient amounts of morphine and comfort medications to tend to dying veterans.
The decision meant 40 veterans were crowded into a space designed to hold 25, providing what the report called the “opposite of infection control.” A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move said she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] to their death,” the report said.
On March 30, as the virus was taking a heavy toll on the home, Sudders’ deputy told Walsh he was being placed on paid administrative leave pending a review, Ferrara wrote in his ruling.
On April 10, the ruling said, Walsh filed suit against the state and sought to block the trustees from proceeding with a termination hearing, citing concern for his due process rights and the possibility that “his attendance would expose him and his family members to COVID-19."
Ferrara ruled Tuesday that only “the Board had clear statutory authority to appoint Walsh and presumably to terminate him,” and that state law does not entitle Walsh to a termination hearing.
According to Ferrara, the state maintained that Baker’s written approval on the June termination letter constituted his dismissal of Walsh, which was permissible since the trustees and superintendent all “serve under” the governor.
The state also argued, Ferrara said, that Baker’s power to supervise the trustees and the superintendent, coupled with the board’s power to appoint a superintendent, means Baker had “co-equal termination authority” with the board and could “unilaterally” exercise the power to fire Walsh.
However, Ferrara wrote, the state “cites no specific case that supports its argument that the Governor has that unfettered discretionary authority."
He wrote that management of the home and appointment of the superintendent “is specifically provided by law, and it is delegated to the Board."
Bennett, Walsh’s lawyer, noted in his statement that the virus “spreads silently” and can be transmitted by asymptomatic people.
“When the disease got into the Soldiers' Home, where the veterans were already vulnerable because of the living conditions and their age and health, it spread rapidly despite the good faith efforts of the staff,” Bennett said.
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.