Gomes Files $1.5 Million Lawsuit Against Southcoast Health
NEW BEDFORD — New Bedford City Councillor-at-Large Brian Gomes has filed a $1.5 million dollar lawsuit against Southcoast Health, his former employer for 29 years.
Gomes was fired on June 23 of 2017, following an investigation into claims of sexual harassment investigation that had concluded almost two years prior. That led to Gomes and attorney George Leontire filing a wrongful termination lawsuit on December 21, claiming $1.5 million in damages and that Gomes be reinstated as a nursing assistant at St. Luke's Hospital, or equivalent position.
Gomes is also seeking a trial by jury.
Southcoast Health, meanwhile, requested on February 14 of this year that the suit be dismissed, citing its internal investigation found evidence that Gomes' behavior toward co-workers justified the decision to terminate his employment.
"Brian never committed sexual harassment," Leontire told WBSM News. "This was an absolutely outrageous action on the part of the hospital, to essentially take a 29-year employee and throw them under the bus, in order to try to eliminate their actions, and that's why Brian has filed the suit."
According to the lawsuit, the initial complaint dates back to September 2015, when Gomes saw a friend's girlfriend, who had recently been hired by Southcoast Health, using her mobile phone in the hospital hallway. When he told her that mobile phone use was "frowned upon," she took offense. The suit says Gomes apologized to her two days later, and hugged her as part of that apology. He was later informed a sexual harassment investigation had been initiated as a result, and Gomes was sent home with pay.
Although the hospital's investigation found a number of employees claimed Gomes had exhibited "loud," "inappropriate" and "disrespectful" behavior, Gomes contends he was never provided specifics of the investigation. Instead, he says in the suit he was told he could "forget about the sexual harassment stuff" if he signed a Corrective Action Form, which he signed despite his contention that he did nothing wrong. The "corrective action" taken was a "final written warning" and a five-day suspension.
According to the suit, Gomes "continued working at St. Luke's Hospital based on the assurances that all work-related issues had been resolved."
But the suit states that in January 2017, the same woman involved in the sexual harassment complaint against Gomes walked off the job during her shift at St. Luke's, and posted comments critical of hospital management on her Facebook account. She filed a complaint of sexual discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
"The hospital then goes and re-looks at the issue that had taken place a year and a half prior, and fires Brian," Leontire said. "The only reason they did this was as a pretext to defending themselves against this woman's claim that the hospital maintained a hostile work environment."
Meanwhile, in its response to the lawsuit, Southcoast Health said the woman claimed on her Facebook posts that she "had been subjected to a toxic work environment created by the improper conduct" of Gomes and other employees. Leontire said the Facebook postings never specifically mentioned Gomes.
"Not only do they not specifically mention Brian, you've got to remember, this whole issue took place a year and a half before (the postings). Now, the hospital frankly didn't have the guts to simply respond to the MCAD complaint," Leontire said. "It has no merit. They went after Brian to discharge him in order to try and absolve themselves of any potential liability under the MCAD complaint."
Leontire said not only did Gomes not have any other complaints between the time of the sexual harassment investigation and his firing, Gomes actually received a positive employee review and a pay raise just months after the initial incident.
Yet Southcoast Health's response cited 27 infractions by Gomes in his 29 years of employment, although it does not specify what types of infractions. It said those infractions were part of its decision to terminate Gomes, calling it an "extensive prior record of documented misconduct and disciplinary actions."
Leontire said it's part of a smear campaign to justify Gomes' firing.
"That shows you the length at which the hospital will go to besmirch someone's character," he said. "Most of (the 27 infractions) had to do with Brian showing up late to work, and some other minor issues. There was no sexual harassment or other (such) complaints, no complaints of any significant nature, and I look forward to bringing out each and every one of those complaints based on how the hospital has attempted to use them."
"We look forward to adjudicating this matter, and getting Brian's not only name back, but you've got to understand, this man put 29 years into that hospital, and to be fired like this, with no additional cause, is simply unacceptable," Leontire said.
On June 23, 2017, Gomes was fired after what Southcoast Health said was a third complaint of "sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation" filed with MCAD in the spring of 2017. The response only states that it was a "female co-worker" of Gomes that filed the complaint, and not if it was the same woman involved in the previous two incidents.
Southcoast said it then "retained a professional to conduct an independent investigation in June 2017" regarding Gomes' behavior, which "revealed additional evidence of (Gomes) exhibiting threatening, disruptive, harassing and intimidating behaviors."
The organization said the review, coupled with review of Gomes' "extended prior record of documented misconduct and disciplinary actions," led to Gomes' termination.
Leontire said Gomes' position as a public figure may have made him an easy scapegoat.
"In today's world, there are very serious sexual harassment claims by people, and many of them have merit. However, not every claim does have merit," he said. "There's no question the touching was inappropriate, you don't touch your co-workers anymore in this world, but this was innocent contact, and he did not deserve to be treated by the hospital this way."
Peter Cohenno, spokesman for Southcoast Health, issued a written statement to WBSM News when reached for comment.
"Southcoast Health does not comment on confidential information related to any employee, either current or former. In addition, this is an ongoing legal matter, so we are not able to provide any detail beyond what has already been filed in our response to Mr. Gomes' complaint," Cohenno wrote.