A lawsuit against one of the nation’s largest chains of assisted-living communities is challenging what the suits claims are dishonest business practices and unethical treatment of the seniors under the chain’s care.

If the suit succeeds, one of the results may be a treasure trove of internal documents from the company. This could allow residents, families and their attorneys across the country to get a close look at how the assisted-living industry does business.

Suit says needs assessments not used to decide staffing

The staff at Sunrise Senior Living facilities do periodic assessments of the residents’ needs, according to the suit filed in the U.S. District Court for Central California. Over time, the residents generally need more help taking care of their own basic needs.

Although each of these assessments tends to result in residents and families paying higher costs, they do not result in residents getting more care, at least according to a key claim of the class action suit.

The attorneys say the company should use the information gathered through this ongoing assessment program to determine staffing numbers, which in turn would respond to the needs revealed in the assessment.

Instead, they say staffing at the company belongs to finance and the true results of the needs assessments are not more care but billing adjustments.

Deceptive business practices and financial abuse alleged

The suit makes still more dire assertions about the company, namely that it violates California law by misrepresenting its practices and services. The attorneys say the company actively deceives customers by staffing employees with inadequate training to fulfill the company’s contracts or match the promises of its marketing materials.

The trial attorney of the team bringing the suit told the New York Times, “If you take an elder’s property, knowing it could harm them, that’s financial elder abuse. In this case, they’re taking their money.”

Company rejects accusations as nation watches progress

Sunrise Senior Living unequivocally rejects these accusations as baseless and categorically false.

Two University of North Carolina researchers spoke to the Times about the suit. A geriatrician from the School of Medicine agreed that understaffing is a nagging problem in long-term care. “Of course, it’s true.” But as quoted by the times, he worried that the company would simply change its promises about its care instead of improving the care.

California will soon decide whether to certify the class action suit and, if it meets with much success, attorneys in other states will begin considering action in a couple of years.