2003-06-06 / Front Page

Neponsit Refugees Win $5 Million Settlement from City

By Tommy Hallissey
Neponsit Refugees Win $5 Million Settlement from City By Tommy Hallissey

Overlooking the ocean on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 148 Street quietly stands the vacant Neponsit Health Care Center, which once was home to nearly 300 senior citizens, who Monday were awarded a $5 million settlement from the city in compensation for trauma suffered from the abrupt 1998 closing of the facility.

Shortly after a Labor Day storm in September of 1998, which caused structural damage, the Neponsit nursing home was completely evacuated over a two-day period without prior notice to the patients, their families or the staff. Residents, some of whom had lived at the nursing home for 15 years, were bused to a number of different hospital wards and nursing homes across the city.

The mass transfer was so sudden that some family members learned of the transfer from watching the news. "They were moved out like cattle in the night," said Lew M. Simon, Democratic District Leader. Elderly patients were left confused and uncertain of their own whereabouts. A 71-year-old woman was missing for several days immediately following the closing of the Neponsit home. "Some people couldn’t find their teeth after [the move]," said Audrey Pheffer, Assemblywoman.

"According to the Giuliani administration, the buildings were in imminent danger of collapse," said John Gaska, district manager Community Board 14. Though almost five years later all four brick buildings of the Neponsit Health Care Center stand intact. "We all know that it was not at the brink of falling down," said Pheffer.

In February and March of 2000, Merritt & Harris, Inc., hired by the City Council, conducted an independent structural survey of the Neponsit home. "We were retained to see if the buildings were in imminent danger of collapse," said Peter Brady, Project Manager, Merritt & Harris. "We concluded, no." The buildings were in "fair to good structural condition" according to the March 2000 Merritt & Harris report.

Once they were able to get their bearings, the 278 residents of the Neponsit Health Care Center filed a class action lawsuit against the city alleging massive violations of the due process rights of the residents who were evacuated without prior notice, according to April Newbauer of The Legal Aid Society, who represented the plaintiffs. Under a settlement reached Monday, each patient will receive $18,000 and for the 110 who have died since September 1998 the settlement money will go to their families. "All the money in the world is not worth what took place that day," said Brenda Tripp, daughter of Eunice, a Neponsit patient. In addition, the city agrees to provide prior notice, preparation and discharge planning in the event that the city intends to transfer 100 or more nursing home residents, according to The Legal Aid Society. "When you move someone frail, medically it can have devastating consequences," said Newbauer.

Unlike many communities, Neponsit embraced the nursing home on Rockaway Beach Blvd near Riis Park. "The community was quite upset [by the closing]," said Michael O’Connor, President of the Neponsit Property Owners Association. "It was disturbing to all of us." Supporters, including union members and residents, held rallies in which they stood outside the nursing home alongside a casket, said Simon, who one day wants to retire in the Neponsit nursing home. Though the lawsuit has been settled, after a nearly five-year battle, not all will give up the fight. "My dream is to get it re-opened, get the patients back, get the staff back," said Simon.

The four buildings that once served as a nursing home lies on land that is zoned as park land. If the property were to be used for anything other than a health related facility it must be park land. Once a site is determined to be park land it can only be changed by an act of the State legislature. The class action lawsuit filed by the former patients of the Neponsit nursing home was filed the day before a proposed demolition of the site. A federal court granted an injunction preventing demolition and the Nep­onsit Health Care Center still stands untouched to this day. In late summer or early fall Community Board 14 will sit down and discuss future plans for the site, said Gaska.

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