WOLFEBORO — A Huggins Hospital employee who told coworkers she could "strangle" a relative was declared mentally dangerous and held in a locked hospital emergency-room area for six days last year, she alleges in a lawsuit against the small Wolfeboro hospital.
Held against her will, Noreen Cousins, 56, of Ossipee, found herself diagnosed with "homicidal ideation," according to her lawyer, Concord attorney Charles "Chuck" Douglas. She was locked in a room with only a toilet, she said Monday.
Cousins had no TV or reading material, and if she wanted to walk the hallways, a hospital worker was beside her, she said.
"It was barbaric," Cousins said.
The lawsuit said three co-workers, whom Douglas describes as "antagonistic" toward Cousins, claimed she planned to shoot up her workplace and kill herself.
A supervisor swore out a petition before a justice of the peace. Police came to her office — a rehabilitation center off-site from the hospital — and took Cousins to the Huggins ER, where a doctor examined her, and she was locked away.
Cousins' husband — a career Navy enlisted man — was deployed in Afghanistan at the time.
According to the lawsuit, Cousins complained about the man divorcing her daughter and off-handedly said she could strangle him and shoot him,
"These are statements you hear at a water cooler when someone's got a family member going through a divorce," said Douglas, who filed suit late last year against the hospital.
The suit claims false imprisonment, wrongful discharge and violation of the state whistleblower law.
State law contains strict deadlines that require a patient to see a judge within three working days after committal to the New Hampshire Hospital.
However, logjams in the state's psychiatric network are commonplace; hospitals and mental health advocates have said that patients languish for days in hospital emergency rooms awaiting a room at the state hospital.
Douglas said he can't tell at this point if Cousins was caught in that backlog.
Huggins is a 25-bed community hospital in Wolfeboro.
The hospital has yet to respond to the suit in Carroll County Superior Court.
"We really can't comment on it," spokesman Mariann Murphy said. "Unfortunately, our hands are tied because it's an ongoing case."
Months before the confinement, Cousins was on the outs with her co-workers.
In February, she had complained to the hospital Human Relations Department that her boss, the director of physical therapy, was allegedly letting friends and family get free treatment, the suit said.
The male boss eventually left the position, and some of her co-workers resented her, the suit reads.
Efforts to contact the former director on Monday were unsuccessful.
Cousins had also raised issues about overtime, which drew the ire of three fellow employees, the suit reads.
At one point, she wrote to Human Resources: "I am verbally abused by the office staff on a daily basis. I have spent many nights driving home with tears in my eyes."
Douglas said he was astonished to find that anyone can approach a justice of the peace, make allegations against someone, and the justice of the peace can start the Involuntary Emergency Admissions process. In this case, it was one of Cousins' bosses.
"She's not a doctor, she's not a law enforcement officer. She's the manager of a physical therapy center," Douglas said.
The state has 16,000 justices of the peace, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
No training is required, and they only have to be 21 or older, a New Hampshire resident and be registered to vote for the previous three years.
Their signature can hold someone for six hours in an emergency room until a physician or nurse-practitioner examines the patient.
A Huggins admissions nurse examined Cousins, and noted that Cousins said she was venting with friends and not serious about hurting anyone, Douglas said.
But a physician wrote he reviewed the nurse's notes and ordered her committed to a psychiatric facility, the lawyer said.
That was May 29, 2013. The suit says Cousins had only limited contact with an adult son, who was not given reasons for her confinement.
After six days, she was transferred to the state hospital and discharged the following day, the suit reads.
Cousins was not suffering from any breakdown or homicidal or suicidal thoughts, Douglas said.
Ken Norton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Hampshire, said people in emergency rooms are in legal limbo.
"They don't get hearings, they're not getting treatment," he said. "The laws are written to provide due process to an individual. The system works when every part of it functions the way it's supposed to."
Cousins had worked at the hospital's off-site rehabilitation center for several years and was earning $11.58 an hour as a clerk, Douglas said.