BRATTLEBORO — A longtime employee of the Brattleboro Retreat has filed a lawsuit against the mental-health facility, alleging she was wrongfully terminated from her position.
Elisabeth Dignitti’s firing happened Nov. 11, after a meeting she says was held in August. At that meeting, she alleges, several Retreat administrators made sexually inappropriate comments about nurse Edward Dowd, who was not in the room. Dignitti was the clinical nurse manager at the time.
Dowd, who is vice president of the union that represents 500 employees at The Retreat, told The Sentinel in an email Wednesday that he’s aware of some of the alleged comments made about him, but they are “not suitable for a family newspaper.”
In The Retreat’s response to the allegations filed in court, the hospital denies any “sexually aggressive” language was used about Dowd but said the meeting included some comments that could be taken as “off-color.”
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro, Dignitti, a Keene resident, says she requested a meeting with those administrators the next day because she was “appalled” by what she’d heard.
“Although a few members of the management agreed, Ms. Dignitti was primarily met with annoyance, with one manager telling her that meetings with members of management should be a ‘safe-space’ for such joking and one director telling her ‘you should have said something yesterday’,” the lawsuit says.
Afterward, Dignitti alleges, one of the administrators in question was “increasingly cold and hostile” toward her, according to the lawsuit.
Dignitti — who was not part of the union at the time of her termination, as she was in a management position — was fired due to “code of conduct violations,” the lawsuit says.
She filed the lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court in Brattleboro at the end of April, and the case was transferred to federal court in early May.
“It was extremely vague ... there were no references to instances,” Aimee Goddard, an associate attorney at Windham Law PLC, which is representing Dignitti, said of the stated reason for her termination. “The language was just extremely broad.”
During her time at The Retreat, where she started working in 2009, Dignitti was promoted twice, moving from mental-health worker to charge nurse to her final position as clinical nurse manager, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims she got a “glowing” performance review in 2018 prior to her termination. In its response, The Retreat says Dignitti was given a final written warning in 2019 for her use of “culturally insensitive language.”
Jeffrey Kelliher, a spokesman for The Retreat, sent a statement to The Sentinel on Wednesday saying that while the mental-health facility takes allegations like Dignitti’s “very seriously,” the hospital “stands by the decisions made in her case.”
“Ms. Dignitti has chosen to challenge those decisions in court,” the statement said, “and the Retreat looks forward to fully explaining its position in that forum.”
In addition to Dignitti’s lawsuit, The Retreat’s administration has been under attack recently by its union.
The union currently has 18 internal grievances filed against the mental-health facility.
The union filed six unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against The Retreat last year, alleging the hospital’s administration repeatedly violated fundamental employee rights.
The union also alleges that The Retreat wrongfully terminated or disciplined at least three union officials in a six-month period, including Union President Sy Creamer, who was fired June 1.
In response, employees plan to picket in front of The Retreat — while following social-distancing protocols and wearing face masks — on the afternoons of June 15 and June 22.
The Retreat serves about 5,400 people across all of its mental-health and addiction-care programs, including 2,500 in its 119-bed inpatient unit.