Lawyers for veterans who died of COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home on Monday added Massachusetts’ Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders as a defendant in their lawsuit against officials of the state-run facility, alleging she long neglected severe leadership problems at the home.
“Secretary Sudders has been added because the evidence shows that Secretary Sudders failed in her obligation to protect the veterans at the soldiers’ home from serious harm,” said attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo, who filed the amended complaint in US District Court in Springfield.
The complaint says the management crisis at the home, which preceded the pandemic, was “in large part the result of her own failure.” The suit also blames Francisco Urena, then the Veterans Affairs secretary, who reports to Sudders, for allegedly neglecting to take steps to prevent the outbreak.
The naming of Sudders, a top aide to Governor Charlie Baker, as a defendant comes a few months after a Globe Spotlight report detailed how Sudders was aware that the Home’s then-superintendent Bennett Walsh was unfit for his job but did little to address the problem until it was too late.
It is the first time Sudders has faced formal allegations for her role in the crisis.
Though the Baker administration had blamed Walsh and Urena for the missteps that led to dozens of deaths, the Globe’s report detailed how Sudders had become deeply involved in the operations at the home, including overseeing Walsh, a former Marine from a politically connected Springfield family who was appointed by Baker. It found that Urena was left with little authority to supervise Walsh, who also had no previous health care experience. Sudders went so far as to send Walsh to an anger management coach after receiving complaints about his temperament.
She fired Walsh in late March 2020, as the virus was sweeping through the soldiers’ home, and she ultimately also forced Urena to resign.
Seventy-six elderly residents died at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020, one of the highest death tolls of any senior care center in the country.
The suit was originally filed in US District Court in Springfield in July 2020 by the family of a late Korean War veteran, Joseph Sniadach. His family sued Walsh, Urena, and three others, charging that scores of residents unnecessarily died at the facility because the officials showed a “deliberate indifference” to their care. It was the first legal action taken by family of those who died at the home.
The complaint seeks $176 million and certification as a class-action civil rights lawsuit.
The 40-page amended complaint charges that the state “made a promise to its citizen-soldiers” to care for them after they served their country, but failed to stem the spread of COVID-19 through the home that it said “was preventable.”
The amended suit adds more than a dozen other veterans. One of them, Air Force veteran Joseph Sanky, survived but has “experienced conscious pain and suffering” ever since, the suit says. He still lives at the home, the suit says.
A second lawsuit had been filed by another deceased veteran’s family but the two suits have been joined. A third suit was filed by workers who alleged they were subjected to “inhumane conditions” as the virus swept through the facility. Kwesi Ablordeppey, a nursing assistant, said employees “watched in horror as the veterans they cared for suffered horrible deaths.”
In addition, Walsh and the former medical director, David Clinton, face charges of criminal neglect in a case brought by Attorney General Maura Healey. Their motions to dismiss the charges are pending before a Springfield judge.
After the outbreak, the governor retained Mark Pearlstein, a partner at the firm McDermott Will & Emery and a former federal prosecutor, to conduct an independent investigation.
The report laid out in excruciating detail the chaos that engulfed the soldiers’ home as the virus began to spread in March 2020. Baker called the report “nothing short of gut wrenching,” and described what happened as “truly horrific and tragic.”
Pearlstein’s 174-page report found fault solely with soldiers’ home staff and lower-ranking officials, including Walsh and Ureña. However, Baker and Sudders faced virtually no criticism.
The independence of Pearlstein’s report has since been called into question after the Globe obtained a document showing Pearlstein was hired as Baker’s attorney during the time he conducted the investigation, which established a lawyer-client privilege between them.
Earlier this month, the National Association of Government Employees, a union with 50,000 members, stepped up its attacks against Baker over his response to the COVID outbreak at the soldiers’ home, posting on line its third ad decrying his role in the crisis.
The ad, and an accompanying website called bakerknew.com, also questions Baker’s hiring of Pearlstein as an “independent investigator” and alleges that Baker and his aides worked to blame underlings for the crisis and to deflect blame from themselves.
Baker is not named in any of the pending lawsuits.
Pearlstein’s report focused on how the virus spread in the home, and the lawsuit repeatedly cites findings from it. The suit, quoting the report, said that leaders at the home made “utterly baffling” mistakes in responding to the outbreak, including merging two locked dementia units in late March.
The original lawsuit was filed by the family of Sniedach, an 84-year-old veteran who died April 27, after he was moved into one of the dementia units. Sixteen other veterans who died at the home — most of who served in World War II or the Korean War — were added as plaintiffs in the case. Some had been living at the home for only a few months while others had been residents for more than a decade, the suit says.
The other veterans added as plaintiffs are: James L. Miller, Robert E. Blais, Albert Warren Nothe, Theodore Anthony Kapinos, James E.Mandeville, Emilio J. DiPalma, Stanley Chiz, Ricardo J. Russo Sr., Harry P. Malandrinos, William C. Chandler, Joseph Correia Santos, Alan David Mundie, Earl W. Desrochers, John J. Faszcza, and Julius Green.
A spokeswoman for Sudders said officials don’t comment on pending litigation. Lawyers for Walsh and Clinton did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Urena and one representing former assistant director of nursing, Celeste Surreira, declined comment.
Jared Olanoff, who represents Vanessa Lauziere, the former chief nursing officer, said contrary to the lawsuit and the Pearlstein report, his client “did not make the decision to combine the dementia units, nor did she have the authority to do so.
“Nevertheless, the units were combined purely out of necessity. As many as 50 percent of the nursing staff called out of work in the days before. Requests for additional staffing — an issue that Ms. Lauziere had repeatedly warned about for several months — went unheeded.
“The building was on fire,” Olanoff said, “and they were given a cup of water.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.