AUGUSTA — A Riverview Psychiatric Center social worker who claimed she was retaliated against for reporting unsafe conditions at the state facility for the mentally ill has settled her federal lawsuit against the state.

Jennifer Taghavidinani, formerly of Oakland and now of Waterville, signed the settlement agreement June 1 releasing all her claims against the state in exchange for $55,000, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request by the Kennebec Journal. She still works at the state hospital in Augusta.

The settlement agreement, which was signed May 24, 2018, by Ricker Hamilton, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, came on the eve of trial. A jury had been selected to hear the civil lawsuit at U.S. District Court in Bangor.

Taghavidinani’s lawsuit, filed in April 2016 against Riverview and former Superintendent Robert “Jay” Harper, alleged years of harassment and negligence at the 92-bed state psychiatric center, saying the staff and patients were in danger. Taghavidinani said some staff members at the hospital acted unprofessionally and that both she and patients there suffered as a result. Harper, who resigned his post in March 2016, was no longer a defendant by the time the lawsuit settled.

Taghavidinani’s attorney, Cynthia Dill, indicated by email Thursday that she had nothing to add beyond the settlement agreement. Assistant Attorney General Valerie Wright emailed a copy of the settlement agreement in response to the newspaper’s public records request.

The agreement says, in part, that it is not to be construed as an admission of liability on behalf of the state. It also says, “The parties have entered into this agreement for the sole purpose of avoiding the burden, expenses, delay and uncertainties of further litigation.”

It says the money “is in satisfaction of Taghavidinani’s claims for alleged non-economic compensatory damages (including emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and in injury to reputation) and is not in lieu of compensation for services, back pay or front pay, or punitive damages.”

In exchange for the money Taghavidinani agreed to the dismissal of all her claims against the state and the hospital and the claims cannot be brought again. Taghavidinani and the department also agreed not to publicize the terms of the agreement except as required by law.

The settlement agreement also says Taghavidinani agrees to withdraw a pending grievance against the department and to notify the Maine State Employees Association of her withdrawal. Tom Farkas, communications director for the MESEA SEIU Local 1989, said Monday that the union had “no comment at this time” on the matter.

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. In the summer of 2014, a number of then-current and former Riverview workers aired grievances about the workplace.

In January 2016, state legislators met with 50 current and former Riverview employees to discuss problems with working conditions there. Gripes focused on forced overtime largely resulting from vacancies among direct care workers.

In an interview in March 2018, Taghavidinani’s attorney, Dill, said, “We feel strongly that the jury will find that Jennifer was retaliated against for engaging in protective activity. 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.”

In March 2018, a federal judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed to trial on a claim of whistleblower retaliation after she sounded alarms over unsafe conditions for staff and patients.

However, 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.

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 said Taghavidinani was transferred to a workplace outside the facility and given no work.

On Monday, Court Master Daniel Wathen said that while he was acquainted with Taghavidinani, he was not familiar with the federal lawsuit.

“Typically if it doesn’t involve patient care, the personnel matters are not within my bailiwick,” Wathen said. “I’m concerned about vacancies and patient care and that sort of thing and not how they manage their personnel.

In a progress report issued last August, Wathen wrote about personnel, noting, “Staffing at Riverview is much improved. Vacancies in positions for direct care workers and nurses are minimal and the use of mandated shifts and overtime has been reduced to acceptable levels.”

That report also notes that the state hospital still lacks certification from the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, abbreviated as CMS, and that in June 2017, CMS demanded repayment of $51 million.

The Legislature has set aside $65 million last year to pay the fine if necessary.

On Monday, Wathen said he would be issuing another progress report soon and has been waiting until the Legislature finished its work this session.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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