A certified nursing assistant at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where at least 77 veterans died of COVID-19 amid tragic missteps by management, has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of dozens of fellow workers, alleging they faced “inhumane conditions” last year as the virus swept through the state-run facility.
The civil suit, filed Friday in US District Court in Springfield, named five former officials at the elder care facility as defendants, including former superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director Dr. David Clinton.
Walsh and Clinton already face state charges of criminal neglect in what is believed to be the first US prosecution of nursing home caregivers over their handling of the pandemic. They have pleaded not guilty.
A lawyer for Walsh couldn’t be reached for comment.
John Lawler, an attorney for Clinton, said in a statement that his client is “a wonderful, caring person who dedicated his professional life to taking care of the medical needs of thousands of people in his community to include the veterans who lived at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during the period when he worked there.”
Clinton, Lawler said, “cared deeply for both the veterans who lived at the Home and for his fellow employees who worked with him providing services to these veterans.” Clinton denies the allegations in the civil complaint that he was “in any way at fault in causing the tragedies that unfolded at the Home when Covid 19 struck Massachusetts in March 2020,” Lawler added.
Kwesi Ablordeppey, who filed the lawsuit seeking class-action status, alleged the former officials, “by their deplorable actions, caused the employees to work in inhumane conditions. The employees watched in horror as the veterans they cared for suffered horrible deaths.”
The complaint also alleged that management repeatedly withheld personal protective gear from staff, more than 80 of whom contracted COVID-19, and misrepresented the scope of the crisis in correspondence with state officials.
The complaint identifies Ablordeppey as seeking to “certify a class of similarly situated individuals” who were working at the home when the virus tore through the facility.
The suit seeks damages “to the fullest extent available” for employees, who the suit says continue to suffer physical and psychological effects from the outbreak.
“Some continue to experience so-called ‘long haul’ [COVID] symptoms to this day,” the lawsuit stated. “What the employees witnessed at the Soldiers’ Home left them emotionally traumatized, and they continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health issues.”
In mid-March 2020, the suit alleged, Walsh publicly shamed workers who called in sick as the pandemic raged and conditions at the home deteriorated.
“Walsh made an announcement over the loudspeaker ... [and] stated, ‘We do want to let you know that the staff that have been calling in will be penalized and there will be disciplinary action,’ ” the complaint said. “Mr. Walsh also made an announcement listing the names of staff members who were being written up for calling in sick.”
His announcement was meant “to intimidate staff into believing there would be negative employment consequences for them if they called in sick to work,” the lawsuit alleged.
Walsh resigned in October.
Ablordeppey’s lawsuit also referenced what Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein, who investigated the Soldiers’ Home tragedy for Governor Charlie Baker, called the “worst decision” at the facility during the crisis: combining two dementia units into one because of a staffing shortage.
That decision put veterans with the virus in close proximity to those who were possibly infected and those who were not showing signs of illness.
Ablordeppey alleged that two other defendants, former chief nursing officer Vanessa Lauziere and former assistant nursing director Celeste Surreira, were involved in the decision to combine the units.
Quoting Pearlstein’s report, the lawsuit stated that staff members described moving the veterans as “total pandemonium” and a “nightmare.” One employee said “it was like moving the concentration camp — we are moving the unknowing veterans off to die.”
At one point during the move, Surreira pointed to the combined unit and stated: “All this room will be dead by tomorrow,” according to the Pearlstein report.
The lawsuit alleged that one employee “expressed concerns about combining units to Chief of Nursing Lauziere. Chief Nurse Lauziere replied, ‘Just do your job, they are older, they are going to die anyway.’ ”
Lauziere and Surreira could not be reached for comment; there are no attorneys listed for them in court papers. The fifth defendant is Vanessa Gosselin, an infectious disease nurse. All five defendants were named in the Pearlstein report. Lauziere and Surreira are also among the five former leaders named in a $176 million lawsuit filed by the family of a Korean War veteran who died at the home in the spring of 2020.
“The tragedy of this is that the veterans and the people who care for them were stripped of their dignity,” said Lenny Kesten, a lawyer who represents Ablordeppey and the other employees.
The complaint also alleged that Ablordeppey was among the employees reprimanded for using personal protective gear while caring for patients during the outbreak. After providing direct care to one of the first symptomatic veterans, Ablordeppey donned an N95 mask and gown the next day while caring for healthy veterans.
Two days later, he received a disciplinary letter from Lauziere stating: “On this March 18, 2020, during your overnight shift in reaction to safety procedures of which you disagreed, you put on a Personal Protection Equipment without permission or need,” according to a copy of the letter that was included in the Pearlstein report.
“Your actions are disruptive, extremely inappropriate, and have caused unnecessary resources to be deployed that may be needed in the future,” the letter continued. “Your behavior unnecessarily disrupted and alarmed staff. We expect more from you as a seasoned employee of the Soldiers’ Home and perceived leader.”
Ablordeppey, a 51-year-old Ghanaian immigrant and single father of three, has worked at the home for 21 years.
“People ask me, especially after the last year, ‘Why are you still working over there?’ Because I love those guys. OK? I love those guys. Because of the stories that they tell you, you can’t read them in a book. They are real. They are stories of life,” he said in an interview with the Globe on Tuesday.
Ablordeppey said he remains overwhelmed with anger and depression about the trauma he witnessed last spring and the lack of support from administrators and state officials.
“It’s too much.” he said. “We may work in low-salary positions, but we have common sense and experience. We deserve support and recognition.”
Last year, the family of Joseph Sniadach, a Korean War veteran who died from COVID-19 at the Holyoke home, also filed a civil suit against Walsh and others. They alleged that scores of residents died unnecessarily at the facility because officials showed a “deliberate indifference” to their care.
Meanwhile, John Paradis, a former deputy superintendent of the home, said that a coalition he helped organize to advocate for replacing and reforming the facility is not seeking to assign blame for the tragedy.
“What we are interested in now is whether all the lawsuits contribute to lasting reforms, how the Soldiers’ Home is managed, and how its day-to-day operations are overseen,” said Paradis, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Paradis said the home has suffered from a lack of attention to employee concerns about staffing, room size, infrastructure, and modern health care approaches.
“These things have fallen on deaf ears, and it’s now time for state leadership to try to listen to what they have to say,” Paradis said. “We want to see some credible legislation, not lip service to the needs of employees and staff. It’s been obvious over the years it’s deserved better.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Hanna Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @hannaskrueger.