Former Waterford nursing home employee claims wrongful firing

The former head of fire protection for a Waterford nursing home has filed suit against his former employer, alleging he was fired in retaliation for criticizing a nursing supervisor’s job performance during a fire evacuation.

Patrick B. Hensch, the former director of environmental services at Greentree Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Waterford, filed suit earlier this month in response to his firing on July 27, 2017. The case is pending in New London Superior Court.

Represented by New London attorney Morris Busca, Hensch, 48, claims in the suit that a confrontation with a nursing supervisor during a July 22, 2017, evacuation of the 4 Greentree Drive facility led to his termination, which he says was wrongful. Hensch was hired on March 20, 2017.

In addition to management of the maintenance, laundry and housekeeping departments, Hensch said he was responsible for fire protection and safety services for Greentree.

Hensch was with his wife, Greentree’s director of social work, happened to be off duty and across the street from Greentree on July 22 when they noticed firetrucks responding to the facility. Hensch and his wife were renovating a vacant home owned by Greentree at 832 Vauxhall St., part of an arrangement that involved the Hensches living at the home at a competitive rental rate.

The couple watched as 25 to 30 people from Greentree were evacuated into the front parking lot, “vulnerable to vehicular traffic in the parking lot and the adjacent street,” the suit claims.

“One employee stopped a patient in a wheelchair who had started to roll towards the parking lot and the adjacent street,” Hensch alleges.

Because of the fire doors, sprinklers and other fire-protection devices unique to health care facilities, Greentree procedures dictate a “defend in place” policy that requires fire doors be closed to keep the fire from spreading, Hensch claims in the suit.

Hensch argues the fire safety protocol was violated when the patients were evacuated. As a result, he confronted the nursing supervisor on duty, Jeanne Nizen, at the scene. Nizen had smelled smoke in the facility and activated the alarm and ordered the evacuation, the suit claims.

The smoke, however, had dissipated by the time the fire department arrived. There was no fire.

Hensch said he told Nizen the evacuation was not only improper but dangerous. He was fired five days later for what he claims was retaliation for reporting a suspected violation of company policy.

Hensch called it a “flawed and prejudiced investigation,” conducted by Nizen, that led to his firing. The termination notice alleged yelling and cursing during the fire incident as grounds for firing. Busca said Hensch is a Christian man and did not cuss during the conversation but may have raised his voice because of all the commotion at the time.

Additionally, Hensch claims Nizen “personally solicited negative and false employee statements” from subordinates present at the fire incident and was asked to submit a written statement.

There had been a previous confrontation between Hensch and Nizen relating to an improper emergency call involving an oxygen tank’s alarm, Busca said.

Hensch argues that Nizen should have been the one disciplined for violating fire prevention procedures and exposing patients to harm.

He alleges his complaint about the improper fire evacuation is constitutionally protected speech and the firing was retaliatory. The employee handbook also provides for a three-warning system before someone is fired.

“In a 2015 case, our Connecticut Supreme Court held that our state constitution protects employee speech, pursuant to their official duties, from discipline when such speech is a matter of public concern and implicates the employer’s serious wrongdoing or involves threats to health and safety,” Busca said.

Hensch is suing for more than $15,000 — back pay, reimbursement for lost benefits or reinstatement to employment or pay in lieu of reinstatement, in addition to other damages. In addition to Greentree, the suit names Stratford-based Ryder’s Health Management Inc.

Busca said he has been in contact with an attorney representing Greentree in an attempt to settle the case short of trial but the company has not yet shown interest in any settlement.

An attorney representing Greentree was not immediately available to comment for this report. A response from Greentree is not due in court until Jan. 9.

g.smith@theday.com

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