Court Seems to Put Ice on Swift Defenestration of Walsh…
UPDATED 4:30PM: To include a response from Walsh’s lawyer and details of his reply to the governor’s letter.
A day after Governor Charlie Baker announced he was moving to terminate Bennett Walsh, the suspended superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers Home, a superior court judge slammed on the breaks. Although Baker has presented Walsh with a termination letter, Judge John Ferrara refused to allow expedited consideration of an injunction Walsh obtained in April.
Last Wednesday, Baker received a report on the breakdowns at the Soldiers Home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It s sweep through the home left 76 veterans dead, one of the worst such outbreaks in the country. Mark Pearlstein’s report is a damning indictment of decisions arising in both Holyoke and in Boston. The Veterans Services Secretary has already been pushed out. Baker has promised to make short work of Walsh as well, but his administration has tripped over a prior agreement to stay proceedings.
The delay is no guarantee the court will continue blocking Walsh’s termination. But unless he agrees, the court may not entertain any further action until July 30.
On March 30, Massachusetts Health & Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders suspended Walsh and installed Western Massachusetts Hospital’s director as interim head of the Soldier’s Home. The move came after the Baker administration said Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse alerted it to an escalating number of COVID-19 deaths there.
But not two weeks later, Walsh filed suit in Hampden Superior Court to temporarily enjoin the Home’s board of trustees from initiating his termination. He also names the state HHS, which oversees Veterans Services, as a defendant.
In his complaint, Walsh alleges that the Board was to consider termination at an April 11 meeting. He alleges he would not have full access to witnesses and materials to defend himself before the Board. He also noted that the Pearlstein investigation was ongoing.
Judge Francis Flannery found Walsh’s plea compelling and ordered a temporary injunction. The Board complied and took no action on April 11.
On April 27, Judge John Ferrara continued an April 30 hearing on the injunction until late July. That came about after Walsh and the state filed a joint motion to stay proceedings 90 days. With the investigation beginning and courts in low-power mode during the infancy of the outbreak, Ferrara aired no problem with waiting.
Pearlstein’s report dropped like a bomb last Wednesday. It outlined numerous failings on the part of Walsh as the COVID-19 crisis escalated. (Walsh’s attorney, his uncle and former Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, has said the report contains baseless accusations).
The same day, Baker said his administration was moving to fire Walsh. In a pair of filings Thursday, the state contested Walsh’s injunction asked for a prompt hearing to end it.
The motion to advance a hearing states that Pearlstein’s investigation is complete. The report demonstrates “the issue of Mr. Walsh’s employment must be resolved expeditiously.”
If the court lifted the injunction, the Board could meet to remove Walsh formally. It indicates Baker’s office had served Walsh with a termination letter. According to Western Mass News, that letter was dated June 24, the date Pearlstein’s report came out.
Almost immediately, Ferrara shot that down
“There is no ‘emergency’ detailed in this filing that was not discernable on April 30,” or even justification to call the filing an “emergency motion,” Ferrara wrote in a brief explanation of his denial.
He said he would reconsider if the parties jointly move to accelerate things.
The accompanying opposition to Walsh’s injunction argues that Walsh cannot succeed on the merits of his suit. It also claims he cannot establish that his due process rights are in jeopardy. Rather, allowing his injunction, the defendants argue, could hurt the Board, the state and the public interest as Walsh would continue to receive his salary until formally axed.
Despite a few references to the Pearlstein’s findings, the opposition to Walsh’s injunction reads like its preparation predates the report. The filing hops among several laws regarding the removal, arguing that Baker can boot Walsh directly or through the Board. At one point, it cites the statute governing the Soldiers Home in Chelsea, not the Holyoke Soldiers Home. It later cites the correct governing law.
The same error appears in Baker and Secretary Sudders’s letter to Walsh according to Western Mass News’s report. On Monday, The Republican reported Walsh’s attorney has rejected the termination as improper. According to the paper, in a June 26 letter Bennett wrote that only the Board of Trustees could lawfully remove his client.
Pearlstein notes the confusion and clarifies these statutes in his report.
In the meantime, because Sudders’s department is a defendant, the injunction appears to stand. It would seem Walsh shall remain superintendent, if in name only, for now.
WMP&I has reached out to the secretary’s office and the governor’s office for comment. Walsh’s lawyer declined to comment.