A new lawsuit claims that early last year, a Denver-area nursing home evicted ailing resident Donna Clifford for non-payment, with the full knowledge that she was incapable of caring for herself without assistance, and even though the majority of her fees were covered by government aid. Nine days later, she was found covered in her own waste and in a health crisis from which she never recovered.
When Clifford died a few weeks later, she looked like a woman in her eighties or nineties, but she was just 59.
The suit was filed by Clifford's children, Monica Almy and Chase Clifford, against Christopher House Rehabilitation and Care in Wheat Ridge, as well as the Denver North and Denver South offices of 24/7 AvaRe Healthcare.
Attorney John Holland of Denver-based Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, who represents Clifford's offspring, has handled a number of groundbreaking complaints against nursing homes — including those detailed in 1998's "Dying for Dollars," 1999's "Survey Says" and 2006's "Switch Hitter," which cites the $37 million award he secured for 23 neglected residents of O'Hara Regional Center for Rehabilitation. But even with his experience, Holland found Clifford's treatment shocking.
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"Donna Clifford was sent home by ambulance from Christopher House, where she remained on her couch, immobile, uncared for, until the police were called by a concerned neighbor and found her covered in urine and feces," Holland says. "So this is a case about abject neglect and abandonment of a woman that all involved were consciously aware had high-level care needs — but they did not provide for those care needs."
Negligence is the focus of the current suit. But the filing also offers notice that the plaintiffs "anticipate, after substantial discovery, petitioning the Court to determine that this death constitutes a felonious killing wrongful death, which vitiates and eliminates any damages caps protection that Christopher House and/or Home Care Defendants might otherwise have" under Colorado statutes.
Clifford lived at Christopher House from April 2018 to January 2019. She was first admitted for rehabilitation after falling and suffering a fracture of her left humerus — an injury that interfered with her ability to care for herself at the apartment where she resided because of what's described as "earlier left-sided hemiparesis from a 2014 stroke." But she didn't enjoy her time at the facility. The complaint notes that during the last months of 2018, she "remained unhappy and depressed with her living situation and continued to want to return home to her apartment despite the facility’s assessment of her inability to care for herself on her own."
Indeed, the complaint contains multiple excerpts from internal reports noting that self-care wasn't an option because of Clifford's various conditions; one mentions "throat cancer and neuropathy." Nonetheless, she was informed on December 13, 2018, that she "would be evicted from the facility for nonpayment on January 13, 2019."
This determination puzzles Holland. "Let's say you're on Medicaid and you're in a nursing home," he suggests. "You don't pay; Medicaid pays whatever the rates are, and you get your care. Now, Donna Clifford was on Medicaid because she was poor and without resources, so how could she have failed to pay? She had some disability insurance, and she continued to pay rent on her apartment because she hoped to go home. But I don't think she was a refuser to pay; I think somehow they didn't do whatever the paperwork was to renew her eligibility for Medicaid, and then they used their own failings as a basis for evicting her."
On January 13, Clifford was transported to her apartment by ambulance; the complaint argues that one of the two 24/7 AvaRe Healthcare offices should have taken responsibility for checking on her well-being once she arrived there. But that didn't happen. "Instead," the document alleges, "Home Care Defendants contented themselves with repeated derelict and uncoordinated attempts to pass and jointly drop the baton between South and the North, as to who would do what, without ever sending anyone out to Ms. Clifford from either Home Care Defendant to provide the agreed-upon services or to even do mandatory initial nursing assessments, welfare checks or meaningfully coordinate with her physician or Christopher House."
The result was tragedy. By the time Clifford was found on January 22, she had pneumonia, influenza A, a pressure ulcer in her sacral region and severe sepsis that contributed to respiratory failure, the lawsuit points out. She was kept alive for the next few weeks before being transferred to a hospice on February 16. She died on February 28, 2019.
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These days, senior centers are receiving added scrutiny owing to the startling number of residents who've lost their lives to COVID-19. But Holland stresses that the novel coronavirus "is not the only issue in nursing homes. This was a complete care breakdown, and we should not put up with grimly substandard care. This lawsuit seeks to redress that here."
He sums up what happened to Clifford with this: "If you have a baby, you don't put the baby on the street. That should be understandable. But if you have a totally dependent 59-year-old who needs help with all activities of daily living, you don't discharge them from a nursing home and leave them alone on a couch, and if you're a home care agency, you don't fail to come and see them after agreeing to do so."
The fate of her mother continues to weigh heavily on Almy. "It's been an agony for her," Holland says. "This happened in January and February of 2019, and she's still in the grip of alarm and upset and pain and tearfulness. I don't think she will ever recover completely no matter what the legal system offers, because this didn't have to happen. It was totally preventable, and it's always harder to resolve a death that was preventable. God did not do this."
The defendants in the case have not yet replied to inquiries from Westword. Click to read Monica Almy and Chase Clifford v. Premier Home Health Care, et al.