Judge allows lawsuit against Crow nursing home to proceed
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge will allow a woman’s lawsuit, which claims that the leaders of the Crow tribe’s nursing home conspired to fire her for reporting that a patient had been molested, to proceed.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters’ order on Wednesday denied the Montana tribe-owned Awe Kualawaache Care Center’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that the federal court has no jurisdiction over Tammy Wilhite’s claims.
Wilhite is a former nurse at the 40-bed nursing home in Crow Agency who was fired on March 29 by the center’s board of directors for having a gun in her car, according to the lawsuit.
That was a pretext, wrote Wilhite attorney Michael Eakin.
“The true reason for the discharge was (Wilhite’s) report to law enforcement authorities concerning patient abuse,” Eakin said in the lawsuit.
A patient told Wilhite that he had been molested by a nursing home employee while he was being transported, and Wilhite told the home’s administrator, according to the lawsuit.
The administrator, Carla Catolster, told other staff not to speak of the accusation and an employee threatened to kick the patient out of the home, the lawsuit said.
Wilhite then reported the allegations to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which is responsible for investigating nursing home abuse, the lawsuit said.
Wilhite was later locked out of the apartment the center rented for her, according to the lawsuit. On March 29, the board called her to a meeting where they fired her for having a gun in her car, which she denied.
A person who answered the phone at the nursing home said Catolster no longer works there. The new administrator, board member and defendant Paul Littlelight, declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending, he said Friday.
A report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid found that nursing home staff failed to act on a patient’s allegations of sexual assault in July 2017 by a staff member who had a criminal history of assault, according to the Billings Gazette.
The report said the man needed transportation services from the home because he was wheelchair-bound, and that the employee rubbed his genitals as she was buckling his seat belt.
The report concluded that the nursing home failed to implement and uphold the policies and procedures to prevent abuse and neglect, but corrected the deficiencies as of April 20.
That employee denied the allegations and she remained on the staff until March, according to the report. She drove the patient to appointments at least twice in the following months, the report said.
Wilhite has filed civil racketeering charges against the nursing home, Catolster, Littlelight and three other board members, on grounds that they conspired to retaliate against her for reporting a crime to law enforcement.
Nursing home attorney Michael Rausch claimed that tribes are exempt from federal racketeering charges and that the matter should be litigated in tribal court, not federal court.
But Watters said in her order that Rausch was mistaken in his reading of the law, and that her court does have jurisdiction over Wilhite’s claims.