The owner of downtown Palo Alto skilled-nursing facility Webster House Health Center has been fined $20,000 in connection to the June 9 rape and sexual assault of a 72-year-old patient by one of its staff members, according to state records.
The California Department of Public Health citation was issued to Walnut Creek-based parent company Covia Communities, which operates Webster House. The facility at 437 Webster St. violated the patient's rights and failed "to keep the patient free from abuse, neglect and exploitation," the citation states.
The fine is the maximum for "Class A" violations, the second-most serious violation by a long-term care facility. Covia Communities is contesting the citation, which was issued on July 15, in Santa Clara County Superior Court.
State investigators had pointed words for Webster House after Jeremias Frago-Rodriguez, a certified nursing assistant, raped and sexually assaulted the patient. He was sentenced to 12 years in state prison in September.
"This failure presented either imminent danger that death or serious harm would result or a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm would result," the citation noted.
The patient came to the facility on May 3 after spinal surgery and was unable to walk or move from the bed without assistance, according to the citation and court documents related to the criminal case. Frago-Rodriguez was frequently her caregiver, bathing her and giving her therapeutic massages. On the day of the assault, he began sucking on her big toe and then engaged in increasingly inappropriate behavior that led to the assault. The patient, who could not move her legs, at one point tried to push Frago-Rodriguez away. She reported the crimes the next day to a nurse, according to court documents.
Frago-Rodriguez admitted to Webster House staff that he made a gesture of biting the patient's big toe as a joke, according to a state investigator's review of the facility's interview/investigative record dated June 10. He was suspended that same day on the allegation of inappropriate and sexual conduct, and his employment was terminated on June 13 after the patient's claim was substantiated, the citation narrative noted.
On July 16, Frago-Rodriguez, 63, pleaded no contest in Santa Clara County Superior Court to one count each of rape by force, violence or duress and oral copulation by force, violence or duress. He originally faced nine felonies and was given the maximum sentence under his plea agreement.
Frago-Rodriguez was previously investigated for sexually assaulting a patient at the facility in 2015, court records show. Investigators could not charge him with a crime at that time because the woman, who was also 72 years old, had serious mental issues and there was a lack of evidence.
After his June arrest, prosecutors again reviewed the 2015 allegations, but they determined the woman in that case is now in worse condition, Deputy District Attorney Anne Seery said at the time of his sentencing.
Webster House Executive Director Linda Hibbs told Palo Alto police after the June incident that she was not aware of the 2015 allegations, according to the court records. On Wednesday, Hibbs would not comment about the citation, referring media inquiries to Mary McMullin, Covia senior vice president for organizational advancement.
McMullin said by phone that the incident was isolated. "We've addressed all practices," she said, and had instituted training or safeguards where they were found to be needed."
Covia has paid the $20,000 fine, which remains in an escrow account while a lawsuit it filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Oct. 2 to contest the citation goes through the court. The lawsuit is expected to take one to two years to resolve, she added.
The company contends that Webster House "did what might reasonably be expected of a long-term health care facility licensee acting under similar circumstances, to comply with the cited regulation," according to the court documents.
Covia also claims the state's findings aren't sufficient to support a determination that Webster House violated the patient's rights under the cited regulation. The suit asks for the citation to be dismissed and the fine eliminated or at least reduced.
"We know how to do it right and I believe we are doing it right," McMullin said during the phone interview. She said she had no comment on the 2015 allegation against Frago-Rodriguez.