Worker fired after care-facility death alleges racial discrimination

By: - May 2, 2023 2:11 pm

An employee of Courtyard Estates at Hawthorne Crossing, an assisted living center in Bondurant, was fired after a resident froze to death outside the home and is claiming in a lawsuit she’s a victim of racial discrimination. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

An Iowa care facility worker who was fired after a resident froze to death is suing her former employer, claiming the company has discriminated against its Black employees.

Sally Daniels, a former resident assistant at the Courtyard Estates at Hawthorne Crossing assisted living center in Bondurant, has filed suit against the facility’s owners, Abilit Holdings (Hawthorne Crossing) LLC and Jaybird Senior Living. She alleges she was fired from the center in March, two months after 77-year-old Lynne Stewart froze to death outside one of the center’s exit doors.

Also named as defendants are the facility’s director of nursing, Dwala Lehman, and its assistant director, Ashley Gilbert. The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, seeks unspecified damages for racial-discrimination violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The defendants in the case have yet to file a response.

In her lawsuit, Daniels alleges she was fired despite having no responsibility for the residents in Courtyard Estates’ memory care unit where Stewart lived. She also alleges she was the worker who first alerted others to the fact that Stewart was missing.

Worker charged with murder

State records indicate Stewart walked out of Courtyard Estates about 9:40 p.m. on Jan. 21, triggering an alarm. By that time, a separate alarm attached to the door of Stewart’s room had already been tripped.

The two alarms triggered a series of alerts that appeared on a desktop computer at the facility and on portable iPads carried by some of the workers.

According to police, surveillance video at the facility shows employee Catherine Forkpa walking around the facility’s memory care unit for hours without checking on Stewart or resetting the alarm system. Daniels alleges she was unaware of the door-alarm alerts in the memory care unit because those alerts were not routed to her iPad, as she was working in a different wing.

At 6:10 a.m. on Jan. 22, Daniels saw the door-alarm alerts and alerted Forkpa in the memory care unit. The two located Stewart outside, on the ground, with parts of her body covered in ice. Stewart was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Forkpa, who had worked at Courtyard Estates for seven months, was fired and now faces charges of second-degree murder. Four other employees were given written warnings for their failure to respond to the door alarms, according to state records.

Daniels and Forkpa are Black, and the lawsuit alleges they are the only employees to have been fired over Stewart’s death.

Nurse didn’t respond to alarms

Courtyard Estates’ executive director allegedly told state inspectors that the night Stewart died, she received text-message alerts on her phone that were triggered by the two door alarms, but she didn’t hear them as she slept. Inspectors reported that the first alert appeared on the director’s phone at 9:44 p.m., and they continued to be received every five minutes throughout the night.

In addition, the facility’s on-call registered nurse, identified in the lawsuit as Jamie Haub, had received a similar series of alerts on her phone. She allegedly told inspectors she had noticed the alerts, but failed to respond because she was at home with her family, and because she went to bed around 9:30 p.m.

Haub allegedly told inspectors there was no expectation for her to respond to door-alarm alerts during on-call status, and that she was only expected to respond to phone calls from the on-duty staff. Inspectors reported Haub said she “should have called the staff to check on things but assumed the staff would take care of it.”

Forkpa’s criminal trial on the murder charge is expected to begin May 15.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.