COOS BAY – Life Care Center of Coos Bay, which provides services for residents with dementia, is being sued for allegedly failing to create a safe environment for patients and staff.
A former nurse with the center filed a lawsuit earlier this week in the U.S. District Court of Oregon’s Eugene Division after she said she endured sexual harassment and assault from one of the facility’s residents back in 2017.
“When Resident JH began harassing and groping staff ... (Life Care) failed to take appropriate steps to stop the harassment,” the lawsuit alleges. “This resulted in Resident JH groping (the nurse), a licensed practical nurse employed by (Life Care.)”
Even after the nurse reported it, the facility “failed to respond to her requests to make the workplace safe and constructively discharged her,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit listed five claims for relief, which included two claims as a result of what the nurse described as a hostile environment, two claims for alleged wrongful termination or constructive discharge, and one claim for alleged negligence.
“... a facility like Life Care Center of Coos Bay has the responsibility to keep both its patients and its employees safe in this type of situation by responding immediately and appropriately to sexual harassment in a way that protects both the employee and the patient, and this facility failed in that obligation,” wrote Meredith Holley in an email to The World. Holley is an attorney at Freedom Resource Center in Eugene, the firm representing the former nurse in the lawsuit.
In 2017, the center took on a resident who had a history of sexually harassing women in other facilities, the lawsuit states. In fact, the resident’s family “removed his iPad to prevent Resident JH from viewing child pornography in the future,” the lawsuit read.
“On the day (Life Care) admitted Resident JH, Resident JH’s brother-in-law told (Life Care)’s Nursing Director, Irene Reed, that Resident JH had inappropriately touched female staff where he lived before,” the lawsuit said. “At some time after (Life Care) admitted Resident JH to its facility, Resident JH’s iPad was returned to him and he resumed watching pornography.”
Twice, the lawsuit alleged, the resident’s iPad automatically connected to the large TV screens in the facility’s common area and exposed “staff and other residents to the pornography on Resident JH’s iPad.”
After multiple incidents between staff and the resident, the nurse suing Life Care said she began to have anxiety attacks.
During one incident, when she entered his room to give him medication, she found him “watching a low-quality video on his iPad,” the lawsuit read, adding that he began caressing her arms. She told him to stop, but “was holding his feeding tube and had been trained never to stop care for a resident in a way that might harm the resident."
The lawsuit said the resident went on to grab her and pull her closer, to which she said she told him “That is not okay. You need to stop right now!”
“Then, he put his hand on her buttocks,” the lawsuit said. “(The nurse) saw on his iPad that there were little girls running down a grassy hill, and she was afraid that he was watching child pornography.”
She finished treating the resident, went to a closet and cried.
After reporting the incident to the facility, then-Executive Director Jesse Winkler allegedly asked her, according to the lawsuit, “Did you tell him that your breasts aren’t for playing with and that it wasn’t appropriate?”
“(The nurse) told Executive Director Winkler that the incident had not involved her breasts and that she had told Resident JH to stop many times,” the lawsuit read.
It went on to state that the nurse told Life Care she didn’t feel safe, needed to see a doctor and couldn’t finish her shift, but was told she was not allowed to leave. After trying to continue working, she repeated that she needed to leave.
“Nursing Director . . . again tried to force (the nurse) to stay, but (she) felt it was not safe for her and left,” the lawsuit said.
On March 30, 2017, the nurse took the case to the Coos Bay Police Department. The World obtained the incident report, which said the day the investigating detective went to Life Care, he was notified that another staff member was touched inappropriately that morning by the resident.
When Detective Hugo Hatzel asked the resident about his behavior, “I observed (the resident's) eyes began to tear up and he was apologetic,” the report said.
Hatzel wrote in the report that he also looked at the contents of the iPad and found that it contained several pornographic photos, but did not find child pornography.
“I explained (the resident's) actions would be considered sexual harassment, however due to (the resident's) physical and mental deficiencies, it was my belief that he would not be able to aid in his defense, and therefore could not be charged with a crime,” the report said.
Hatzel recommended to Life Care that Director Winkler block the resident's access to pornography.
“I was shocked when Mr. Winkler told me that it was specifically written in (the resident's) residential agreement that he would be granted access to view pornography and in essence Mr. Winkler didn’t believe he could curtail (the resident's) right to sexuality,” the report said.
The case was then submitted to the Coos County District Attorney’s Office for further review.
From there, the case couldn’t move forward. As DA Paul Frasier explained to The World, the resident wouldn't have been able to aid and assist in his own defense, sometimes referred to as “competency.”
“We run into these issues occasionally with these patients in care centers where they have dementia or Alzheimer’s, or both, and because of their mental condition they do not understand what’s going on around them,” Frasier said. “We would have to prove to a court, before even beginning to prosecute, that they understood what they were charged with, understood the penalty they were facing, understood what it would mean to plead guilty or not guilty.”
He pointed out that Hatzel came to this same conclusion, which is why he didn’t arrest the resident.
“There was no way we could prosecute the case,” he said. “He simply wasn’t competent to proceed.”
After reporting the incident to the Coos Bay Police Department, the nurse suing Life Care said she checked herself into an inpatient care facility because she had started to experience suicidal thoughts. On May 16, 2017, the Nursing Board suspended her nursing license because of her hospitalization, which the nurse said was a direct result of her sexual assault.
Now she is seeking economic damages from lost wages, medical expenses in an amount to be determined at trial, and reasonable attorney fees and costs.
The World has reached out to Life Care Center for comment and was still waiting on a response at press time.
The World is following this story as it progresses.