Employment suit filed against Retreat

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BRATTLEBORO — Claiming she was fired from the Brattleboro Retreat after filing a complaint about jokes of a sexual nature made about a male nurse, who is also a union representative, a former employee has filed a lawsuit against the mental health facility.

"[Elizabeth] Dignitti was appalled by the sexual jokes and she was equally concerned about the target of the harassment," John Mabie, of Windham Law in Brattleboro, wrote in the suit. "Ms. Dignitti was aware that [Edward] Dowd was a central and vocal member of the employees' Union and she was particularly concerned that this sexually aggressive conversation was being directed at Mr. Dowd, by members of management at a time when the Retreat was engaged in a contentious contract negotiation with the employees' Union."

Dignitti began her employment with the Retreat in 2009 as a mental health worker providing direct care mental health services to inpatient clients, where she "distinguished herself as a skilled and dedicated staff member who genuinely believed in the value of the Retreat's mission and service to the community," states the suit. In 2013, she was promoted to the position of Charge Nurse for the Osgood 3 Unit. Following "glowing" performance reviews, wrote Mabie, she was again promoted, this time to the position of clinical nurse manager, now in management and under the supervision of Chief Nursing Officer Meghan Baston.

Mabie wrote that since Dignitti's promotion to charge nurse, Baston was "constantly curt, dismissive, and cold to Ms. Dignitti." Following the complaint, he wrote, Baston "became increasingly cold and hostile to Ms. Dignitti."

On Aug. 27, 2019, "Baston's unprofessional behavior crossed a line that Ms. Dignitti could not, in good conscience, ignore," Mabie wrote. During a meeting with a number of other managers and directors, "Baston and several other managers and directors began to make jokes of a sexual nature about Dowd, who was not present. Ms. Dignitti sat in stunned silence as Ms. Baston and her fellow managers laughed and disparaged Mr. Dowd."

The next day, wrote Mabie, "still sickened by what she witnessed, [Dignitti] requested a meeting with the members of management and administration who had engaged in the sexually harassing conversation."

Baston was not present at the meeting, but Dignitti told her co-workers "that conversation of a sexual nature, pointed at a colleague with the intention of demeaning that colleague, was unacceptable."

Although a few members of management agreed, Dignitti was primarily met with annoyance, states the suit, with one manager telling her that meetings with members of management should be a "safe-space" for such joking and one director telling her "you should have said something yesterday."

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Following the meeting, Baston "was not upset that high-ranking managers and directors had been making sexually harassing jokes about a nurse. Rather, Ms. Baston was upset that Ms. Dignitti had addressed the issue at all and that she had done so in a meeting without Ms. Baston present," wrote Mabie.

During a group meeting that followed, he wrote, "Ms. Baston initially begrudgingly affirmed the validity of Ms. Dignitti's complaint. She did so, however, in a manner that clearly communicated her displeasure with Ms. Dignitti's complaint and minimized the harmful nature of sexual harassment."

On Nov. 11, 2019, Dignitti received a termination memorandum from the Retreat with "a number of vaguely identified 'code of conduct violations,'" which Mabie characterized as "pretextual reasons," or dubious or spurious reasons.

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The Retreat issued a statement Friday in response to Dignitti's lawsuit.

"The Brattleboro Retreat takes allegations such as the ones made by Ms. Dignitti very seriously," spokesman Jeffrey Kelliher wrote. "That being said, the hospital stands by the decisions made in her case. Ms. Dignitti has chosen to challenge those decisions in court, and the Retreat looks forward to fully explaining its position in that forum. Because these matters are in litigation, we can provide no additional information at this time."

The Retreat's response to the suit also includes a motion to strike Dowd's name as "superfluous and immaterial" to Dignitti's claims. His name "should be stricken to avoid embarrassment to, and invasion of the privacy of the male employee ... who is not claiming that he was subjected to sexual harassment."

And mentioning Dowd is active in the union, noted the response, "has the potential to cause unfair and unnecessary prejudice to the Retreat ... at a time when the Retreat was engaged in contentious contract negotiations with the Union ..."

In opposition to the motion to strike, Mabie noted that Dowd's identity was not "superfluous" to the case because he is a "vocal and active member of the employees' Union at the Retreat."

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It is the Retreat, wrote Mabie, that is "subject to embarrassment" for the way Dowd was spoken about.

"Mr. Dowd, who engaged in no unlawful or unsavory conduct, is a victim of the Retreat's unlawful behavior, and has no reason to feel embarrassment due to the perpetrator's conduct," wrote Mabie. "The very fact that the Retreat views this situation as embarrassing for Mr. Dowd, speaks loudly to its inaccurate and damaging understanding of sexual harassment, and the work environment which lead to Ms. Dignitti's retaliatory termination."

Dowd, who told the Reformer he was OK with being identified in the suit and in the media, is on a leave of absence. He said he filed a complaint with the Retreat upon hearing about the comments that were made. He alleged the comments were a violation of the Retreat's code of ethics. An outside investigator concluded there was no violation because the discussion happened in private and didn't affect Dowd's employment. Dowd said he hasn't seen the report, only a summary of the report.

Members of the union staged a picket on Thursday after Sy Creamer, president of Unit 1 of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Union, was fired for allegedly forwarding an email to herself and a union vice president containing a patient ID number but without names or personal health information. She has filed a grievance over her termination. Winston Salisman, vice president of UNAP Unit 2 at the Retreat, was fired on Nov. 25, after the Retreat accused him of violating its policies by fostering a child who was a patient at the Retreat.

"This is a pattern of behavior," said Dowd. "We need to get the current administration out."

Dignitti's suit was originally filed in Windham Superior Court, Civil Division, and moved to U.S. District Court to the District of Vermont.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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