Riverview social worker’s lawsuit over retaliation heads to trial

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A federal judge’s recent ruling allows a lawsuit by a Riverview Psychiatric Center social worker to go to trial in May on a claim of whistleblower retaliation after she sounded alarms over unsafe conditions for staff and patients.

Jennifer Taghavidinani, of Oakland, says she was locked out of the state hospital in Augusta, spent two months without work, and was denied a merit raise because she complained about unsafe working conditions.

Taghavidinani’s lawsuit, filed in April 2016 against Riverview and former Superintendent Jay Harper, alleged years of harassment and negligence at the 92-bed state psychiatric center in Augusta, saying the staff and patients were in danger.

Taghavidinani said some staff members at the hospital were acting unprofessionally and that both she and patients there were suffering as a result.

Starting in 2011, Taghavidinani complained of harassment and mistreatment to her supervisor, then to the hospital’s human resources director. She filed a grievance through her union; filed a formal complaint with a government oversight office; described her experiences at Riverview to Daniel Wathen, who serves as court master for a consent decree governing how the state is to treat people who have severe and persistent mental illness; and spoke to the press.

“We feel strongly that the jury will find that Jennifer was retaliated against for engaging in protective activity,” said Taghavidinani’s attorney, Cynthia Dill. “We plan to put on evidence that as a result of her reporting these safety concerns and what she believed, she was locked out of the hospital for a couple months without a stitch to do. She was essentially banished and told not to talk to anybody. She had nothing to do and she was threatened with job termination.”

Taghavidinani is working at Riverview Psychiatric Center now, Dill said.

The lawsuit alleged that Riverview allowed harassment, retaliation and threatening against Taghavidinani and gave unwarranted privileges to violent forensic patients who had been deemed not criminally responsible or incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness. It also says she was transferred to a workplace outside the facility and given no work.

In an order issued earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Jon D. Levy ruled out a number of claims by Taghavidinani, granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants — Riverview Psychiatric Center and Harper. However, Levy said the case could proceed on Taghavidinani’s claim of retaliation under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act.

Harper, who resigned his post in March 2016, is no longer a defendant in the lawsuit.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling, which granted summary judgment to the defendants on all but one of the claims in the case,” Assistant Attorney General Valerie Wright said in a statement Tuesday. “We look forward to trying the remaining claim.”

She also added, “The claim in this case does not pertain to (the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) certification of Riverview.”

The federal agency, which oversees Riverview funding, found numerous problems during an audit, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients, improper record-keeping, medication errors and failure to report progress made by patients. As a result, the hospital lost eligibility in 2014 for federal reimbursement of about $20 million annually.

The Taghavidinani v. Riverview case is set for jury selection May 8 in federal court in Bangor.

In his most recent order, Levy wrote, “It is undisputed that during the time Taghavidinani worked at Anthony Avenue, she did not have any job responsibilities related to social work, and the record indicates that she may not have been assigned any work whatsoever.”

Levy wrote that Taghavidinani was denied a merit pay increase to which she was entitled.

He added, “By Riverview’s own admission, Taghavidinani was provided no opportunity to apply her social work skills while at Anthony Avenue.”

Among the excerpts from a log kept by Taghavidinani at that time:

• 6/19/14: Reported to 41 Anthony Ave.; nobody knew what we were doing as far as jobs.

• 6/23/14: Sat in cubicle all day.

• 6/24/14: Sat in cubicle all day. Not a word from anyone.

• 6/25/14: Came in this morning and had a cutout of a silhouette of a nude woman (4 ft.) hanging on the sliding glass door to my cubicle. I took it down and put it on the file cabinet in the cubicle. … Don’t know who supervisor is or what job it (sic). Sitting in silence in my cubicle. Wendy, office assistant, stopped by and said hello. Said there was not work for me and not sure why I was there.”

The last entry — July 3, 2014 — in one copy of the log, says, “Sitting in cubicle.”

“She in good faith made complaints to Riverview and to OPEGA, talked to newspapers and as a result of that activity was locked out of the hospital,” Dill said. “Job responsibilities were taken away; she was threatened with job termination and denied merit pay.

“What she complained about was unsafe working conditions. There were patients running amok and all kinds of problems, and also a hostile work environment created by bullying by coworkers.”

Jennifer Taghavidinani, of Oakland, says she was locked out of the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, spent two months without work, and was denied a merit raise because she complained about unsafe working conditions at the state hospital for people with mental illness. (File photo by Joe Phelan)

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