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SLS Residential Defendants Sanctioned After Threatening Former Patients

Oct 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
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SLS Residential, LLC, a private mental health facility located in Putnam County, NY, has been sanctioned for threatening former patients who are potential plaintiffs in a class actions lawsuit.  SLS runs two residential treatment centers in the town of Southeast, NY  for adolescents and young adults.  In addition to a class action lawsuit, SLS is facing revocation of its state operating licenses for the two facilities.

The class action lawsuit, filed by two former SLS Residential patients, alleges that they were subjected to physical and mental abuse.  The complaint, which was filed on behalf of all SLS patients, seeks  $75 million in compensatory damages, $150 million in punitive damages and an injunction that would bar SLS from further violating patients' rights.

The SLS class action lawsuit  alleges that staff illegally employed manual restraints and put patients in isolation rooms where they were physically and emotionally abused, subjected patients to nightly searches of their bodies and rooms, and denied patients the right to refuse treatment, leave the facility or phone family members.  The complaint also charges SLS with discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and claims patients were targeted for mistreatment because they were mentally disabled.

Southern District Judge Stephen Robinson assessed SLS $35,000 in sanctions after he determined that 80 former patients  had been told by SLS therapists that their private medical records would be made public if they became plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. In some cases, the therapists falsely told their former patients that the judge had actually ordered the publication of medical records.

At a hearing held by Judge Robinson on July 8, a therapist who had worked at SLS for two years testified that its Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Shawn Prichard, had called a meeting to discuss contacting the potential class action lawsuit plaintiffs and their families, and distributed a list of their names and phone numbers.

In addition to using threats to coerce  former patients into opting out of the class action lawsuit,  the callers contacted other institutions where some former SLS patients were being treated and tried to convince personnel at institutions to sign opt outs on their patients' behalf.

In levying sanctions against SLS, Judge Robinson called the defendant's conduct "egregious".   "Under the guise of caring for their former patients, the defendants sought to capitalize on the potential plaintiffs' vulnerability and discourage them from participating in the lawsuit." Judge Robinson said. "This conduct is astounding to the court."

In his decision, the judge held SLS management responsible for the conduct of the therapists.  "These calls were not the result of inadvertence, misplaced good intentions, or even the product of rogue employees who took it upon themselves to manipulate class members," Judge Robinson said. "Rather, it was a scheme designed and implemented by the very highest managers at SLS who are, not incidentally, named defendants in this lawsuit."

In addition to the $35,000 Judge Robinson voided all of the opt-outs signed by potential plaintiffs, and ordered corrective notices to be mailed. He also ordered all the defendants to cease contact with the potential plaintiffs.

The class action lawsuit is not the only legal battle that SLS Residential is facing right now.  Last week, SLS filed a lawsuit in the New York state Supreme Court seeking to reverse the revocation of its operating license by the state Office of Mental Health (OMH).  In 2006, OMH fined SLS Residential $110,000 for violations of the state Mental Hygiene Law and ordered that it stop admitting patients - and stop violating the rights of the patients it was treating.  The OMH said SLS Residential routinely restrained clients and kept them from making phone calls. It also found that staff would search patients, their rooms and packages sent to them.

In seeking to revoke its licenses, OMH alleged that SLS used illegal restraints on patients long after being told not to, that it administered sedatives to patients when they refused to take their medications and that it failed to report troubling incidents to the state, including patients behaving suicidally and complaining of abuse by staff.

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