scales of justice and law books

Attorneys for a woman with dementia who allegedly had more than $700,000 stolen from her by employees of the Chicago assisted living and memory care community where she lived filed a lawsuit Thursday against the community, its owners, employees and contractors.

The 335-page complaint, which names Cook County Public Guardian Charles P. Golbert as the plaintiff on behalf of 98-year-old Grace Watanabe, seeks monetary damages for what it describes as an “abhorrent cover-up” that enabled employees to take Watanabe’s funds over an 18-month period by adding their names to her bank accounts, acquiring ATM and debit cards, using Watanabe’s Zelle account to transfer money to themselves and using her checkbook.

A Symphony representative said: “Upon learning of the incident involving Ms. Watanabe, we immediately notified law enforcement authorities to investigate and seek restitution for Ms. Watanabe, and we are cooperating with those agencies.”

The 86-count lawsuit in part alleges that Symphony Residences of Lincoln Park Executive Director Erika Cruz was aware that employees were receiving money from Watanabe’s accounts, which, at minimum, was a violation of a company policy prohibiting them from accepting gifts.

According to the complaint:

  • Activity director Christina Wright received $353,332.21 from Watanabe;
  • Business manager Tameeka Wolfe and her daughter Sharessa Brookins, employed by Symphony as an activity assistant, received $197,434.82;
  • Receptionist Lisa Lash accepted $65,000; and 
  • Assistant activity director Christina Posada received $25,000.

The lawsuit states that Cruz was made aware of financial exploitation complaints against Wright multiple times in spring 2018 and formally was notified of them by the Illinois Department of Aging on May 25, 2018. In consultation with regional operations directors Moshe Siegal and Moises Alipala, however, she did not inform law enforcement of the complaints against Wright until she was instructed to do so by the Department of Human and Family Services on June 21, 2018, the complaint maintains.

“Symphony’s owners and managers went out of their way to hide what happened to Ms. Watanabe and to avoid being held responsible for it,” Golbert said in an announcement of the lawsuit. “This went so far as to include Erika Cruz physically locking Ms. Watanabe in an office when we came to move her from Symphony to a facility where she would be safe from further exploitation.”

Wright’s employment reportedly was terminated, allegedly for unrelated reasons, on June 1, 2018, but none of the other employees was fired for their participation in the financial transactions, and Cruz is still employed as executive director of the Symphony Residences of Lincoln Park, the lawsuit states.

The limited liability corporations that own and manage the senior living community — Symphony Ivy, Symcare HMG, Maestro Consulting Services and NuCare Services Corp. — “had a duty to train employees to conduct themselves in a safe manner and in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations, and facility policies in order to protect the residents, including Grace, from foreseeable risks, unreasonable risks of harm and the recurrence of inappropriate and wrongful employee behavior,” according to the legal action. The lawsuit accuses all four entities of breach of their fiduciary duty to Watanabe and negligent hiring, retention and training of employees.

Wright and Wolfe were charged in October with financial exploitation of an elderly person, a felony. 

Earlier, Golbert’s office had filed a separate civil lawsuit seeking information from Symphony. Company executives are appealing a September court order that they testify. They are being fined $400 for every day they defy the order.

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