TRAVERSE CITY— Northern Lakes Community Mental Health has agreed to a $510,000 legal settlement with a whistle blower who lost his job after exposing inadequate supervision of the disabled on area buses.
Jonathan Bennett, former director of Northern Lakes' Office of Recipient Rights, filed suit against the agency in December 2012, claiming he was fired for exposing inadequate supervision of disabled CMH clients.
Bennett's lawsuit was settled May 30. The Record-Eagle confirmed the $510,000 settlement amount Monday through an open records request.
“The settlement was amicable,” Bennett said. “We are happy with the results.”
Greg Paffhouse, chief executive officer of Northern Lakes CMH, received a written reprimand by the agency's board of directors following a state investigation. Paffhouse said Monday the lawsuit was "amicably" resolved in the best interest of all parties.
Both sides of the dispute said the mediated agreement limited their public comments on the matter. The agency's insurer, Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, will pay $353,651 to Bennett and $156,348 to Jay Zelenock, his attorney.
Bennett was dismissed in October 2012. He claimed the agency harassed and retaliated against him after his investigation showed assaults, sexual misconduct, and self-harm among unsupervised CMH clients that rode Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) buses. The buses are contracted by CMH to take clients to and from training and work sites.
Paffhouse said in an earlier interview that Bennett’s investigation played no role in the firing. He said there were already longstanding and deep conflicts between Bennett and staff. Those conflicts compromised the staff's ability to do their jobs.
Bennett, fired after 15 years on the job, was responsible for protecting the rights of clients served by the six-county agency —a staff "watchdog" of sorts.
Bennett learned in August of 2011 of a serious assault on a profoundly mentally disabled woman. Another disabled male rider struck her more than 100 times, grabbed the stump of her amputated arm and choked her over a period of 90 minutes. She couldn't cry out for help because she is unable to functionally speak.
The woman’s service plan, which lists a client’s treatment and support needs, required she be supervised “at all times," yet a bus aide wasn't assigned.
Bennett widened his investigation and learned caseworkers should have assigned bus aides for 66 other developmentally disabled individuals. Some of those individuals rode the bus for several hours a day. He cited two dozen bus incidents, including a man who ingested cleaner from the bus bio-hazard clean-up kit.
Bennett contended his urgent calls for a remedy were ignored or blocked. In November, he went to the state Department of Human Services-Adult Protective Services to complain about the foot dragging. His call prompted a Nov. 29 meeting in which DHS officials told Northern Lakes' top officials to take immediate action or they would notify guardians of the situation.
As a result, staff rode buses the next day, followed by aides thereafter.
Paffhouse said in an earlier interview that the agency took prompt action.
Paffhouse said he didn’t learn of the August 22 incident until Oct. 25. His staff subsequently met several times in November to identify which clients required bus supervision. They also discussed other transportation options, as well as how to pay for aides.
Jeanine Rossbach, whose developmentally disabled adult son rides the BATA bus, said the settlement makes a "huge statement."
"He was fired needlessly," she said, adding that Bennett was their son's "firewall."
Rossbach said her son, who can't speak, is prone to seizures and would be helpless to fend off an assault. She has confidence in the bus aide who rides with her son.
Rossbach said the need for aides was well illustrated on a June 2011 night when a CMH client rode a BATA bus with six other CMH passengers. The man jumped from the emergency exit onto Hammond Road after getting into an argument. He was struck by a vehicle and killed.
“He didn’t need to die. Had there been an aide on the bus who could have intervened, it could have been a simple thing,” she said.
The bus was contracted by CMH but the man was not a client of Northern Lakes CMH, Bennett said.
“He was a recipient of a CMH in the Upper Peninsula. Their rights office had jurisdiction," he said.
Bennett's whistle blower trial, originally scheduled for November, would have examined months of agency upheaval following the BATA bus investigation. Paffhouse hired independent consultants who issued an August 2012 report. They wrote of significant tensions between Bennett and staff. They wrote the majority of those interviewed had stopped seeking the advice of Bennett, fearing an "abusive response or worse." They characterized interactions with him as "difficult" and wanted him fired or for him to change his investigative style.
A Michigan Department of Community Health investigator followed up with a study of its own and concluded Bennett was subjected to a pattern of retaliation and harassment by Northern Lakes CMH staff and administration. It took the form of "everything from hostility during interviews to unruly behavior in public meetings."
It also said the consultants' report was flawed. It said the administration did not follow up on complaints to determine their validity.