New River Behavioral HealthCare issues re-emerge
by Kellen Short
The New River Service Authority board is moving to dismiss a state lawsuit filed by former employees of the mental health agency, saying this second lawsuit has no more merit than the first.
Exactly 105 former employees of New River Behavioral HealthCare filed a complaint in Alexander County on June 21, continuing to raise concerns they have expressed since the agency collapsed in financial ruin in fall 2011.
The complaint alleges that the board breached employees' contracts and broke other laws by refusing to pay the workers' unused vacation and sick leave time, retirement and other benefits.
The suit points to a 2006 interlocal agreement formed by five northwestern counties that states that any New River debts that exceed its available cash shall be paid by the counties based on how much they contributed annually to the agency.
The complaint, filed by Hickory attorney Charles Oswald, names as defendants the New River Service Authority; the counties of Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Watauga and Wilkes; and board members Gary Blevins, Larry Cox, Nathan Miller, Kenny Poteat and William Sands, who are also county commissioners.
The 60-page complaint offers a blistering critique of the actions taken by the board from 2006 through the shutdown process.
"Despite their obvious and well-documented negligence and outright fraud, defendants brazenly disclaimed financial responsibility and have shamefully attempted to dodge their lawful obligation to pay plaintiffs' earned wages and wage benefits, as well as various other compensation and benefits," the complaint states.
The former employees claim they're owed about $417,000 in unpaid vacation leave, $495,500 in unpaid sick time and $37,000 in unpaid travel and other reimbursements, along with punitive damages of at least $1 million.
In motions filed Friday, the New River board and other defendants ask a judge to dismiss the entire suit or parts of it due to alleged violations of civil court rules. It describes how the defendants believe the suit failed to state a claim in keeping with various state laws and rules.
A second motion asks that the case be transferred to Avery County rather than Alexander County. The complaint was filed in Alexander, it says, because conflicts of interest may prevent a fair trial in the five affected counties, as county commissioners' funding decisions can affect state court operations.
It also asks that Watauga County be dismissed from the lawsuit, as the county manager was not properly served a copy of the complaint.
Finally, a fourth motion asks that a judge strike the sentences in the complaint that are "irrelevant, impertinent and scandalous," saying the wording was chosen not to explain the claim but to insult and ridicule the defendants.
The civil suit follows on the heels of a similar lawsuit filed in federal court last year. U.S. District Judge Richard Voorhees dismissed the case in March after ruling that it had not identified a federal law violation. Voorhees said the federal court did not have jurisdiction.
But the former employees and their attorney have said they still want a court to address the substance of the case.
Watauga County commissioners met in closed session Tuesday to discuss the case.
Miller, who is chairman of the commissioners and the New River board, declined Wednesday to discuss the lawsuit.
"There's plenty I'd like to say, but it's probably better that I don't have any comment," he said.
He said a hearing would be held before a judge, an action he said might occur before the end of the year.
Miller said it was unlikely the New River Service Authority board, which last met in April, would convene to discuss the case.
"There's no money to settle with, and they want way more than we ever had anyway," Miller said.