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Traverse City Record-Eagle

KALKASKA — A critical social media post prompted Kalkaska’s hospital to sue three people.

The Kalkaska County Hospital Authority filed a lawsuit claiming defamation, tortious interference and invasion of privacy against Carol Pound, Diane Pound and Aliza Morse after a series of unpleasant encounters surrounding the medical care of the defendants’ 94-year-old relative, Eleanor Pound. Carol and Diane Pound are Eleanor’s daughters, while Aliza Morse is her granddaughter, and all three live in Kalkaska County.

The hospital wants Morse to delete her critical Facebook post and issue a public retraction, according to court documents. Morse said she’s not inclined to do that.

“I want the freedom to express my opinion in Kalkaska County without being subject to frivolous lawsuits,” she said.

Morse said she made a lengthy and public post on Facebook to explain her frustrations with both the hospital’s care of her grandmother and treatment of herself and other family members, including being forbidden from visiting their relative while she was being cared for at the Kalkaska facility. She said her mother, Carol Pound, has picketed in front of the hospital while carrying signs with critical messages about the facility and its policies, as well.

Morse made her Facebook post on May 5 and the lawsuit was filed with the 46th Circuit Court three days later. It is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on July 3 in Kalkaska.

The hospital’s lawsuit contends the defendants verbally abused their family member; ignored dietary restrictions in place for her; withheld meals from her; instructed her not to take her medications; provided unauthorized vitamins to her; and, verbally abused and even threatened hospital employees. The situation involves months of disagreements — some outright arguments — among family members and hospital staff about Eleanor Pound’s treatment and care.

After various documented incidents, the hospital forbid Eleanor Pound’s relatives not only from visiting, but from trespassing on the facility’s property unless seeking emergency medical treatment. Officials even had Aliza Morse physically removed by a sheriff’s deputy.

“I’m not going to say I wasn’t annoyed with them, but I was never threatening or abusive,” Morse said.

The suit asks for retractions to be published “in the same manner as the defamatory statements were published,” presumably meaning not only on Facebook but with picket signs outside the hospital, as well, since those are specifically cited in the complaint.

Kalkaska Memorial Health Center is publicly funded with a countywide 1.6-mill operational tax that is collected by each township and then paid to the hospital. The tax generated approximately $1.035 million last year and was renewed by voters in May 2017 and is now set to expire in 2026. The business operates in a partnership with Traverse City-based Munson Healthcare.

In its suit, the hospital accuses the three women of business defamation, interfering with the ability to conduct business and false light invasion of privacy.

The hospital’s attorney Gregory L. Jenkins declined to discuss details of the case and why hospital officials seek legal intervention.

“It’s the policy of Kalkaska Memorial Health Center not to discuss the specifics of pending court proceedings,” Jenkins said.

Both Carol and Diane Pound declined to comment and said their lawyer can speak for them.

Their attorney Jeff Slocombe said he looks forward to arguing for his clients’ First Amendment rights. He said they are eager to have their evidence presented in court.

“Rather than shutting them down, I believe this lawsuit will give them the platform to say what they want — the truth,” he said.

Jenkins countered that the hospital is not trying to halt free speech and protest rights.

“We are not seeking to chill any First Amendment rights or suppress any First Amendment rights the parties may have,” he said.

Hospital administrator Kevin Rogols said the organization explains in its complaint why officials there felt the contentious situation with this family merits a lawsuit, rather than a confidential settlement.

“The issue is not minimizing publicity. The issue is patient safety, staff safety and the defamation of this very fine organization of care providers,” Rogols said.

A number of comments left on Morse’s Facebook post by others use vulgar and even violent language in calls for retribution, while others raise concerns about family members’ behaviors and defend the hospital’s efforts to accommodate the family and care for its patient. The post has been shared more than 1,200 times and garnered nearly 600 comments.

“So not only are they trying to penalize me for exercising my freedom of speech, they are trying to also penalize me for what other people have said to my post,” Morse said.

In addition to the suit, the hospital also requested an ex parte temporary restraining order against the trio of family members. That means the hospital asked the judge to rule in its favor without hearing any argument from the defendants or their lawyer.

That request was denied by 46th Circuit Judge George J. Mertz, who ruled on May 10 the plaintiff “failed to make specific allegations of immediate and irreparable harm that would justify short-cutting the defendants’ due process rights under the court rule.” He ruled that instead there are economic remedies for a successful defamation claim.

However, Mertz did weigh in on the online element of the case in his ruling:

“The court appreciates the position the plaintiff is in and its desire to protect itself and its employees from harassment. The court is not unsympathetic to the plaintiff’s position, nor is its ruling to be construed as an endorsement or approval of the behavior of the defendants. To the contrary, the court finds it unfortunate that in today’s society individuals are able to use social media to widely distribute harassing and potentially defamatory statements,” Mertz wrote in his decision.

Slocombe said he will seek to have Mertz tossed from the case for that statement.

“We are going to move to recuse him as judge,” Slocombe said.

Meanwhile, hospital officials confirmed they transferred Eleanor Pound to another care facility. That facility is in the Lansing area near another of her granddaughters who shares legal guardianship with Elk Rapids-based Brenda Miller, an independent co-guardian appointed by the court in March.

Miller declined to comment about the case, but did confirm Eleanor Pound is doing “very well” at the downstate facility. Miller said she has petitioned the court to remove her as legal co-guardian.

This lawsuit in Kalkaska County is the latest legal entanglement for a family with a history of contentious dealings with health care providers.

Grand Traverse County Probate Court maintains a large stack of records from 2017 that reflect multiple family members seeking legal guardianship of Eleanor Pound, as well as the Grand Traverse Pavilions where she was a resident. That case contains reams of accusations and arguments among family members and health care providers all of which were withdrawn when the parties agreed to transfer Eleanor Pound to the Kalkaska facility.

Kalkaska Memorial Health Center Board of Trustees

Bruce Zenner, chairman, member at large*

Dean McCulloch, vice chairman, Blue Lake Township*

Kathy Ryckman, secretary-treasurer, member at large*

Gerald Gaultier, Boardman Township*

Jerry Cannon, Garfield Township*

Dan Johnson, Kalkaska village*

Jeffrey Lavender, member at large*

George Banker, Bear Lake Township

Marianne Ewald, Clearwater Township

Raymond Hoffman, Coldsprings Township

Bethel Larabee, Excelsior Township

Allen Dimon, Kalkaska Township

Sonja Dunham, Oliver Township

Eric Hendricks, Orange Township

Carl Ingersoll, Springfield Township

Dr. Richard Hodgman, member at large

Dr. Jeremy Holmes, member at large

Michael Perreault, member at large

* executive committee members

The Rapid River Township position and one member-at-large position are vacant.