BOSTON (SHNS) – Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders did not have the authority to fire Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh following a COVID-19 outbreak at the home, and Walsh’s termination should be considered void, a Hampden County judge ruled Monday.
State law explicitly places management of the home and its superintendent under the purview of the facility’s board of directors, not an individual secretariat, Hampden Superior Court Judge John Ferrara wrote in his decision.
Ferrara ruled that Sudders overstepped her authority when she terminated Walsh via letter in June, even if Gov. Charlie Baker had approved the action. Ferrara deemed Walsh’s firing “invalid and void,” and his ruling said the board alone has the authority to execute a change in Walsh’s employment.
“In this matter, had the Governor recommended the Board terminate Walsh, there is no reason to believe that the Board would not have complied,” Ferrara wrote. “The Board, and not the Secretary, was the proper vehicle through which the Governor could have exercised any authority to terminate the Superintendent.”
Walsh was hired to the position in 2016, and he was at the top of the home’s leadership when COVID-19 swept through the facility in February and March, killing at least 76 veterans who resided there.
The administration placed him on paid administrative leave amid the crisis and tapped Val Liptak as interim superintendent.
Baker asked former U.S. Attorney Mark Pearlstein to investigate the outbreak, and he concluded in a June 24 report that a series of “utterly baffling” decisions by facility higher-ups — such as combining two locked dementia care units with both COVID-positive and COVID-negative patients — contributed to the problems at the home.
Sudders, with Baker’s support, wrote to Walsh firing him the same day as the release of Pearlstein’s report. Walsh challenged that step in court on July 13, arguing that the letter was invalid.
While the health and human services secretary has authority to appoint and remove the superintendent of the other state-run soldiers’ home in Chelsea, the secretary does not have the same power over the Holyoke position, Ferrara wrote.
Sudders also mistakenly cited a section of state law applying only to the Chelsea home when she notified Walsh of his hiring in 2016, according to Ferrara.
The Monday court decision left the long-term fate of the home’s top position unclear. While Ferrara ruled Walsh’s termination void, he also stressed in his decision that Walsh does not have a right to a hearing about his dismissal and that the board does not need “good cause” to remove a superintendent.
Trustees had scheduled a meeting in April to consider Walsh’s fate, but that never took place after the superintendent filed a lawsuit over due process concerns.
Walsh’s attorney, William Bennett, said in a statement that he hopes the decision will prompt a public reconsideration of the crisis.
“For several months Superintendent Walsh has been vilified by Governor Baker, Secretary Sudders and others,” Bennett said. “I hope that this decision will allow people to consider that perhaps that criticism is unfair and that the actual story of what happened has not yet been understood.”
Bennett said “a true inquiry” into the dozens of deaths at the home should “focus on the science.”
“Covid has a unique method of transmission,” he continued. “It spreads silently and is transmitted by people who do not appear to be infected. When the disease got into the Soldiersâ€™ 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.”
A Baker administration spokesperson declined to answer questions Tuesday about next steps, whether Baker will ask the board to formally fire Walsh, or whether Walsh is owed back pay, saying only that “the Administration is reviewing the court’s decision.”