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Eleanor Slater worker sues RI for ‘grossly negligent’ discrimination, retaliation

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Zambarano is a unit of the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital system. (WPRI/Eli Sherman)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – An Eleanor Slater Hospital employee is accusing the state of workplace discrimination in part because of a decision last year to reinstate a coworker who “stripped her of her responsibility.”  

Sharon Sousa, associate director of support services at the state-run hospital, filed the federal lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court of Rhode Island. She’s accusing the R.I. Department of Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals – which oversees Eleanor Slater – of violating state and federal employment protection laws related to discrimination and retaliation.

Sousa “has suffered and will continue to suffer loss of income, severe mental and physical anguish, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and other great harm,” attorney Edward Formisano wrote in the complaint.

He called the state’s actions “grossly negligent, reckless, deliberate, intentional, malicious, deceitful, wanton, willful and/or in bad faith.”

The state and BHDDH are named as the defendants in the lawsuit, but the complaint focuses mostly on the alleged actions of Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones, along with BHDDH Chief Operating Officer Christopher Feisthamel, whose employment status was called into question last year.

BHDDH spokesperson Randy Edgar declined to comment on the allegations outlined in the complaint.

“As the named defendant in the lawsuit, the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Hospitals and Developmental Disabilities will not answer questions on pending litigation,” he said.

A spokesperson for Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

Sousa has accused Jones of restructuring the hospital amid a Gov. Dan McKee-led leadership shakeup last year that resulted in Sousa reporting to Feisthamel, a coworker she had named in a separate discrimination lawsuit in 2019. The state settled that lawsuit outside of court for an undisclosed amount of money in 2020, according to court records.

Sousa said she tried to raise concerns about the new arrangement with several people, including Jones, Eleanor Slater CEO Richard Charest and the state’s human resources division, but that no action was ever taken to rectify the situation. In practice, Sousa now reports directly to Charest, but five of her departments were given to Feisthamel as part of the restructuring, according to the complaint.

Sousa also said she filed a complaint of waste and misuse of funds with the state’s Office of Management and Budget. The following month, Secretary Jones called her and told her she knew what state employees filed complaints, according to the lawsuit.

The hospital restructuring detailed in Sousa’s complaint came amid a Target 12 investigation into the work status of Feisthamel, whose $226,000 salary is among the highest in state government outside of higher education. State leaders in former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration tried multiple times to fire Feisthamel beginning in November 2020, but he successfully held onto his job in part because of an obscure state policy known as “leave to protect.”

Last year from January to April – during the transition between the Raimondo and McKee administrations – Feisthamel wasn’t fired, but he also wasn’t regularly reporting to work in-person or remotely. In March, he averaged fewer than two emails per workday, according to emails released in response to a public records request. His former office in Cranston had been cleared out in December and given to someone else.

After Target 12 first asked the state about his employment in April, Feisthamel returned to work in-person the following workday. His return came as a surprise to coworkers and state lawmakers who thought he’d left state government in December.

“I thought he left state service,” said Sen. Louis DiPalma, chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee, after reviewing Target 12’s findings last May.

Sousa “became aware that Mr. Feisthamel’s lay off never became effective and he had been getting paid by [the state] from December 2020 to April 2021,” according to the complaint.

Around the same time he returned, Sousa alleges Feisthamel started undermining her responsibilities at the hospital. He involved himself “in the day-to-day events at the Zambarano Unit” in Burrillville where she was serving as de facto administrator, according to the complaint.

Sousa also accused Fiesthamel’s fiancée, Michelle Place, of accessing her calendar “without her permission” and forwarding her leadership meeting appointments to Fiesthamel, according to the complaint.

Jones, meanwhile, publicly said that the state would investigate Feisthamel’s employment status and look into what he’d been doing during the first four months of the year. But behind the scenes, she was expanding his responsibilities, according to the lawsuit, and on May 6 Jones restructured the hospital so that Sousa would lose several of her responsibilities to Feisthamel.

Sousa “was essentially stripped of her responsibilities,” according to the complaint.

In August, a spokesperson said the investigation into Feisthamel’s employment was completed, “but the report and its contents are confidential as they pertain to a personnel matter.”

Feisthamel, who started in state government in the treasury under Raimondo, has now been named in at least three discrimination lawsuits. In addition to the two from Sousa, Eleanor Slater employee Lisa Greenlund also named him in one filed last year.

Sousa argued the state’s actions “were motivated by malice and ill” based on her previous complaint, and that its actions “were taken in reckless and callous indifference” to her protected rights, according to the complaint.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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