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Baker Act lawsuit filed against group home

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Lois Evett says no one asked for her approval last year before sending her 90-year-old stepfather across the county to a mental hospital.

Like hundreds of elderly Pinellas County residents, Philip Walters was locked up under Florida's Baker Act. When Evett begged hospital officials to release him, they declined.

Now Evett is fighting back.

Evett has sued the Blue Haven Retirement Center, a Madeira Beach group home that sent Walters to the Manors psychiatric hospital in Tarpon Springs. The suit, filed on behalf of Walters, alleges that Blue Haven violated his rights by discharging him improperly.

"We have a client who was involved in the care of her stepfather, who has looked after him and has a power of attorney, and was able to be contacted," said Evett's attorney, Michael Geldart. "All of a sudden, my client finds her stepfather is at the Manors."

Blue Haven attorney Karina Gonzalez declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The lawsuit is significant because it challenges the way hundreds of residents have been sent to mental hospitals in Pinellas County.

Under Florida's commitment law, called the Baker Act, a doctor or mental health professional can evaluate a person to see if he or she might be mentally ill and dangerous. If so, the person is supposed to be sent to the nearest state-approved psychiatric facility for a more detailed examination.

In Walters' case, the evaluation that justified his commitment was done at the Manors, not at Blue Haven. And the Manors was not the nearest approved facility to Blue Haven. Six other suitable hospitals were closer.

Walters' story, and that of dozens of other elderly men and women, was included in a five-part series published last month in the Times. Called A Dangerous Age, the series showed how Pinellas County led the state in the number of people involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities.

Many of these commitments involved 70-, 80-, 90- and 100-year-old patients who were forced into mental hospitals from nursing homes and retirement centers. The hospitals have earned millions of dollars in Medicare reimbursements, state records show.

Under the Baker Act, successful lawsuits against psychiatric hospitals and doctors are rare. But Florida law specifically allows residents to collect punitive damages and attorney fees by suing nursing and retirement homes.

According to Evett's suit, Walters' commitment caused him "extreme embarrassment and psychiatric trauma."

The suit alleges that Blue Haven improperly discharged Walters without giving him 30 days' notice.

Such notice is not required when a dangerous resident needs immediate psychiatric commitment. But Geldart said the Baker Act clearly says "that the person is intended to be transported to the nearest receiving facility."

Blue Haven discharged him without any legal authorization, said Geldart, an attorney with the St. Petersburg office of Holland & Knight. The Manors is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

F. Dee Goldberg, the Manors administrator, has said that patients come from distant nursing homes and retirement homes because caregivers believe the Manors gives the best psychiatric care.

A retirement home might, indeed, think the Manors gives the best care, Geldart said, but "it is the patient who controls the medical care. It is not a health care provider's role to make medical decisions and control a person's medical care."

Martha Lenderman, who oversees HRS' mental health programs in Pinellas and Pasco, said she was pleased that a lawyer had challenged in court a retirement home that forced a resident into psychiatric treatment without consulting the man's family.

"I'm not surprised," Lenderman said. "I think nursing home and retirement home residents have rights in addition to those under the Baker Act, and they should be protected from sudden psychiatric hospitalizations for which family and guardians are not involved."