At least five lawsuits target Tulsa psychiatric facility after allegations draw national attention

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Shadow Mountain Behavioral Health System. Courtesy NewsOn6

A Tulsa psychiatric facility that drew national scrutiny earlier this year after allegations of patient abuse, riots at the facility, billing fraud and other violations of state and federal law is now facing nearly half a dozen lawsuits from former patients and employees.

The Shadow Mountain Behavioral Health facility, 6262 S. Sheridan Road, came under investigation by both state and federal authorities in April after a story published by Buzzfeed News alleged “mass chaos” at the facility, ranging from improper billing practices to abuse.

Since the release of Buzzfeed’s story in April, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority has canceled its SoonerCare contract with the facility, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services has opened investigations into treatment of patients at the facility and the U.S. Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation of the facility.

In addition, at least five lawsuits have been filed in both state and federal court.

One of the lawsuits, filed by a former employee, alleges she was fired for whistleblowing two days after the Buzzfeed story was published. Others, filed by former patients and the guardians of juvenile patients, allege negligence and abuse by staff at the facility.

Universal Health Services was the subject of a yearlong investigation by BuzzFeed News that presented allegations of patient abuse and neglect, Medicaid fraud, and violations of state and federal regulations on numerous issues. The company is now facing a shareholder lawsuit, filed in December 2016, alleging the it misled investors with corporate statements that were false or misleading, based on the Buzzfeed News investigation.

Universal Health Services is a publicly-traded company and one of the largest for-profit health and behavioral health care providers in the country, according to its corporate filings. It owns hundreds of behavioral health inpatient and outpatient facilities throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as dozens of hospitals and medical facilities, corporate records show.

In addition to Shadow Mountain, Universal Health Services also owns three other mental health facilities in Oklahoma – two Cedar Ridge facilities in Oklahoma City and one in Bethany. The company also owns the acute care hospital Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Enid.

According to Universal Health Service’s 2016 annual report with the Securities Exchange Commission, the company had around $1.3 billion in income from operations in 2016.

The company’s most recent quarterly filing states that in April 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division issued a subpoena requesting documents from Shadow Mountain. The facility was also one of several subpoenaed in an investigation kicked off in 2013 by the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the filing states.

The “whistleblower”

On Aug. 1, Shadow Mountain’s former staff development coordinator filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Shadow Mountain and Universal Health Services, as well as Shadow Mountain CEO Michael Kistler, human resources director Jordan Cooke, and Universal Health Services divisional vice president Sharon Worsham.

The federal civil suit alleges Kalfas was terminated from her job on April 13 for whistleblowing — two days after the Buzzfeed investigation was published.

Kalfas started work at Shadow Mountain Hospital and Behavioral Health Assessment Center in 2013 and was the staff development coordinator when she was terminated, according to the suit. 

About three weeks before Kalfas was fired, Cooke, the hospital’s human resources director allegedly told Kalfas that Kalfas’ husband — the former director of nursing at the facility — was instigating an investigation and lawsuit against Shadow Mountain related to the hospital’s violations of state and federal laws and regulations.

Cooke allegedly told Kalfas that Shadow Mountain believed she provided that information to her husband. Though the defendants’ deny any wrongdoing in their separate responses filed in the case, they do confirm that they believed Kalfas was giving information to her husband and that her husband was involved in the investigation and lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges Cooke, Kistler and Worsham knew of the systemic neglect and abuse of patients, staffing issues, and violations of state regulations and billing practices.

Additionally, they failed to act on their legal obligation to report the issues, the suit states.

Buzzfeed’s investigation found illegal Medicaid billing practices, incidents in which staffers improperly and unsafely restrained children, and 30 incidents of documented neglect and abuse.

After Kalfas was terminated, she sustained loss of employment, wages and other compensation, the suit says. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $75,000, as well as attorney’s fees.

Kalfas directed questions by The Frontier about the suit to her attorneys, who did not return phone messages. Attorneys for Shadow Mountain also did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Neither Kistler nor attorneys representing Shadow Mountain in the case returned phone messages by The Frontier seeking comment on the Kalfas case and other lawsuits.

Caught on video

Brian and Tamala Walker, of Muskogee, filed a civil suit in June on behalf of their minor child, who was in the care of Shadow Mountain for behavioral health disorders.

The Walkers recently learned their son allegedly received negligent care, and was mentally and physically abused when the then-15-year-old was at the hospital for nine days in June 2015, the suit says.

The hospital and its employees violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) when they allegedly provided the child’s written and recorded health information to Buzzfeed, the lawsuit states.

Several videos in Buzzfeed’s investigation show Kistler physically restraining patients, although the patient’s cannot be identified by their faces.

Shadow Mountain, Incident 1 from BuzzFeed News on Vimeo.

The civil lawsuit, filed in the District Court of Muskogee County, alleges the hospital and its employees intentionally and negligently inflicted emotional distress, and that the hospital provided negligent, training and supervision to its employees.

The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in both actual and punitive damages.

However, since the lawsuit was filed three months ago, no other action has been taken in the case, according to court records. Muskogee attorney Lowell Howe, who is representing the Walkers, did not return phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

The bitten boy

On July 12, the parents of a boy from Oklahoma County who had been placed at the facility in June 2016, Brent and Kristin Kelley, filed a lawsuit against Universal Health Services, its subsidy UHS of Delaware, Shadow Mountain, and former Shadow Mountain employee Quatrilla Virginia Barnett, 36, alleging the child had been abused while at the facility.

According to the lawsuit, the Kelleys of the child — a 10-year-old male identified only as I.K. in the lawsuit — placed the child in the facility on June 30, 2016, and visited the child on weekends while he was at the facility. During those visits, the child seemed homesick, but otherwise in good condition, the suit states.

A few days prior to one of the parents’ scheduled weekend visits, Shadow Mountain contacted the parents by phone and told them the child had misbehaved and cancelled the next family visit, the suit alleges.

On the evening of Aug. 13, 2016, the parents received a phone call from an administrator at Shadow Mountain who told them their son had been bitten by a staff member earlier that day, the lawsuit alleges.

The parents of the child immediately headed from Oklahoma County to Tulsa, and on the way the father called the police in Tulsa to report the incident, the suit states. At the time, the incident had not been reported by Shadow Mountain to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services or the police, according to the lawsuit.

Later, police said the boy had been acting out that day, and was placed in a room separate from other residents at Shadow Mountain, and mental health technicians were trying to restrain the child.

One mental health technician at the facility was sitting on the ground behind the boy restraining his arms, while a second, 36-year-old Quatrilla Barnett, restrained the child’s legs, police said. A third mental health technician had placed a towel over Barnett’s head and upper back because the child had allegedly been spitting earlier, police said.

The child told the other two technicians that Barnett had bit him on the leg, though the two technicians could not see it happen because of the towel, a police report states, but when the towel was removed, a bite mark that was already turning purple was found on his leg.

Barnett told one of the technicians that she bit the victim while she was attempting to fix the arm brace she was wearing with her teeth, and that she bit the victim in addition to biting the strap on her brace, the police report states.

The suit alleges that at “the conclusion of the altercation and while the child was completely overpowered and subdued, Defendants’ employee was so enraged that she bit the 11 year old on the leg.”

Later, the boy told a forensic interviewer that Barnett bit his leg, put her nails into his back, neck and arm, put a big bruise from her fingers on his arm and choked him.

The lawsuit states that the child later told a counselor that he had been sexually abused at the facility.

Barnett was charged on Nov. 23 with one felony count of child abuse by injury. She pleaded guilty to the charge in April and was given a three year deferred sentence that required her to take anger management classes, court records show.

Barnett did not respond to a phone message left by The Frontier.

A motion filed Aug. 7 to dismiss or transfer the lawsuit to Tulsa County denies the Kelleys’ allegations.  Shadow Mountain and Universal Health Services did not act recklessly, with deliberate indifference or intentionally cause distress, the filing states.

Even if allegations were true that a Shadow Mountain employee left bruises and scratch marks on the child’s neck, and while such behavior “may be frowned upon,” that conduct is not extreme and outrageous, the filing states.

“Minor children who experience behavioral and emotional difficulties severe enough to warrant inpatient treatment at a behavioral health facility often act in a violent or aggressive manner,” the filing says.

“To counteract such aggression and to protect other patients with the facility, staff members must occasionally terminate physical altercations between patients; physically restrain patients; or take other similar actions to prevent further injuries.”

Responding to allegations the couple’s child was sexually abused, the filing states Shadow Mountain cannot be held liable because the employee wouldn’t have been acting within his scope of employment.

Severed fingers

Katherine Tanner filed a negligence lawsuit on May 30 in Tulsa County against Shadow Mountain, Universal Health Services, and a facility employee.

Tanner, who was a 23-year-old in-patient at Shadow Mountain on Nov. 2, was being placed in an isolation unit that afternoon, according to the lawsuit. When she realized what was happening, she grabbed a door jamb and the employee slammed the door shut, nearly severing Tanner’s right middle and ring finger, the suit states. After being taken to a hospital, doctors determined they could not save Tanner’s two fingers and they were amputated, according to Tanner’s lawsuit.

Tanner’s attorney, Jacob Biby, said the facility delayed in turning over Tanner’s records and has refused to produce video that exists of the incident. The suit asks the judge to compel the release of the records.

Universal Health Services moved that the suit be dismissed, and claimed it was only a holding company that had no contact with the state of Oklahoma and does not own or operate hospitals in the state. In response, Biby said that argument was “disingenuous at best,” and submitted several exhibits purporting to show UHS’s connections with the state and Shadow Mountain.

Bruises and welts

The mother of a child who stayed at Shadow Mountain from April to June filed a lawsuit on June 28 in Tulsa County against Shadow Mountain on four claims including alleged negligence, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The mother, named only as B.P. in court filings, took her daughter, 11, to the hospital for inpatient care in April. The child was frequently seen with large bruises and welts during her stay, the lawsuit alleges.

The injuries stemmed from “excessive and extreme corporal punishment” inflicted by hospital staff, the suit states.

B.P.’s attorney, Charles Richardson, did not return a phone call or email by The Frontier seeking comment.

The 11-year old, named P.P in the suit, was often denied food and water, while employees forced her to sit in a corner or left her alone in a room for days without access to a bathroom, the lawsuit alleges.

In June, B.P. reported her worries of abuse and neglect to the Department of Human Services, according to the suit.

Shadow Mountain allegedly tried to cover up the abuse and neglect by denying the child her daily phone call with her mother, refusing to talk to B.P. about her daughter and failing to report the abuse to DHS, the lawsuit states.

B.P. is seeking more than $75,000 in exemplary and compensatory damages.

In a motion to dismiss the case filed on Aug. 2, Shadow Mountain denied the allegations.

B.P.’s lawsuit, the motion says, fails to describe the severity and frequency of the bruising.

“Rather, (B.P.) alleges that P.P. was seen with ‘large welts on her forehead,’ injuries that could have easily been caused by P.P. herself,” the motion states.

An earlier version of this story cited Medicare billing practices when it should have said Medicaid. It has been corrected.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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