New class action lawsuit filed against Salisbury nursing home alleges negligence, mismanagement of COVID-19

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 20, 2021

SALISBURY — A class action lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. Middle District Court of North Carolina alleges severe understaffing, negligence and mismanagement of COVID-19 in the facility. 

The suit was filed by Salisbury-based firm Wallace & Graham on behalf of two of the facility’s residents and several of their family members. Plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit include Citadel residents Sybil Rummage and Betty Deal. Rummage’s adult daughter Sonya Hooker is a plaintiff, as is Betty’s adult daughter Donna Deal and Donna’s husband Kenneth Michael Deal.

Located on Julian Road, The Citadel is a congregate-care facility that experienced the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the state last year. There have been 189 cases and 18 deaths as a result of COVID-19 at the facility, according to the Rowan County Health Department. Outbreaks at the facility prompted a visit from a federal infection control “strike team” and a weekslong investigation by the North Carolina Department of Health Services Regulation. The result of the investigation was a report corroborating over 20 complaints made by residents and families about staffing issues and mismanagement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These brave facility residents and their families are not just suing for themselves,” lead attorney Mona Wallace said in a news release. “They are trying to get relief for all of the other families who have loved ones at The Citadel.”

The defendants in the class action suit are The Citadel Salisbury LLC, Salisbury Two NC Propco LLC, Accordius Health LLC, Portopiccolo Group LLC and Simcha Hyman and Naftali Zanziper, the co-owners of the businesses listed in the suit.

The suit alleges Hyman and Zanziper use the four LLCs to control and manage different aspects of the facility. Salisbury Two NC Propco LLC owns the land on which the facility sits. Accordius Health LLC manages the facility and Portopiccolo provides “back-office services.”

The suit states conditions at the facility were bad before Hyman and Zanziper purchased it from Genesis Healthcare on Feb. 1, 2020, and that the duo knew about the poor conditions.

“Hyman and Zanziper, while being aware of the dire conditions at the facility, made no efforts to require Genesis to upgrade conditions prior to the sale,” the suit states. “To the contrary, during this time Hyman and Zanziper were assuring prospective lenders that they would be able to cut millions of dollars of costs even after acquiring the new facilities.”

The poor condition of the facility, in fact, may be why the duo purchased it.

The lawsuit states Portopiccolo went on a “shopping spree” in 2019 focused on buying “distressed buildings” that came on the market for a low price.

“During this time, Hyman, Zanziper and Portopiccolo were recklessly buying up facilities at a rapid rate without concern regarding the unsafe status of many of the facilities,” the lawsuit states.

Hyman and Zanziper’s purchasing of dilapidated nursing homes across several states was detailed in an article published by Barron’s Magazine in August. 

When buying facilities in North Carolina, Hyman and Zanziper allegedly promised investors big savings.

“While acquiring three nursing homes in North Carolina, Portopiccolo represented to its lenders that it expected to save $360,000 by lowering expenses associated with employee benefits and insurance and $410,000 by cutting equipment and transportation costs. These measures, outlined in a mortgage loan contract, allowed Portopiccolo to save more than $50 million across 37 facilities it owned in the state.”

After Hyman and Zanziper took over The Citadel, the lawsuit states conditions deteriorated.

The specific claims brought by the plaintiffs include breach of contract, unfair and deceptive trade practices and breach of fiduciary duty and negligent infliction of severe emotional distress. The plaintiffs are seeking payment for those claims in an amount to be determined at trial.

Detailed in the lawsuit are numerous instances in which Rummage, who has been diagnosed with a cardiac condition, did not receive her prescribed heart medication on time, including an instance when more than 24 hours passed without her receiving the medicine. In one case, Rummage was said to have received the wrong dosage.

In the lawsuit, Betty Deal details her own issues receiving her Parkinson’s disease medication in a timely fashion. In one case, Betty Deal stated she’d “gone 20 hours with no medicine or breathing treatments.”

Along with “medication neglect,” the suit states understaffing resulted in delayed baths, lagging response times to the “call lights” of residents and other issues of neglect. 

“Good-quality bathing with competent caring staff is a key part of the quality of life for a patient in a nursing home,” the lawsuit stated. “That was inadequate here.”

Rummage noted the facility’s “level of service declined not only because of sheer lack of staff, but also because of the use of transient ‘agency’ staff who as contract workers would come and go. The facility was relying on many nursing staff provided by staffing agencies, who were not regular, full-time employees. This practice worsened on the weekends.”

The lawsuit also details problems with The Citadel’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early April, after COVID-19 forced the facility into lockdown, the lawsuit states Rummage was told simply to “keep her curtain pulled” in case her roommate had COVID. Days later, Rummage was told by the facility’s medical director that she’d tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition to the staff shortages, the lawsuit noted supplies, including medicine and personal protective equipment, were in short order. There were multiple instances cited in the lawsuit of staff members not wearing masks or personal protective equipment.

The class action lawsuit requests the following definition for the class, which is the pool of people who can participate as plaintiffs: “All individuals who have been residents, or sponsors of residents, at the Citadel Salisbury facility from February 1, 2020, until present.”

Now that the case has been filed, a judge must certify its class action status. Chief District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder has been assigned the case.