Friends say Melinda Cordell was a classically trained ballerina, actress, choreographer, dance instructor, animal lover, writer and dreamer.
When the soap-opera star died alone and long forgotten in a north Fresno hotel in April 2015 of malnutrition, she left unfinished business.
Five months before Cordell died at age 74, she had sued the owners of Somerford Place, an assisted living facilty in northwest Fresno, for locking her up with Alzheimer’s patients against her will for 18 months. She contended in her Fresno County Superior Court lawsuit that she was a victim of elder abuse, false imprisonment and negligence.
With her death, Cordell’s estate took over her cause. On Tuesday, right before jury selection in Cordell’s civil rights trial, Somerford Place reached a confidential settlement that has no admission of liability, said Fresno lawyer David Moeck, who represented Cordell’s estate.
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Moeck said the settlement prohibits him from talking about the case, other than to say Cordell was a kind, generous woman who was quirky and eccentric. Court records and pretrial motions, however, paint a portrait of a fragile woman. The filings say she was someone who in the final years of her life suffered from mental illness and whose so-called friends took advantage of her.
Cordell said as much when she signed a declaration in June 2014 for probate court proceedings that ultimately resulted in her release from Somerford Place. “For the past 18 months, I have been living a nightmare,” she says in her declaration. “Every day I am surrounded by patients at this facility who are losing their minds and have dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
Cordell told that judge that the friends who put her in Somerford Place were not acting in her best interest and were misusing her money. “To date, I have not been told where my personal belongings, including furs and jewelry, are being held or what has come of them,” she says.
She also pointed out that “no court has ever declared me incompetent and it is frustrating that I am being treated as though I am presently incompetent when my most recent evaluation ... by Dr. (Howard) Terrell proves otherwise.”
Like anybody else, I may not know what the future holds for me, but I should have the right to make my own decisions and steer my life any direction I choose.
Melinda Cordell, in 2014
Born Feb. 26, 1941, in Shelby, Ohio, Cordell began dancing at age 14 and once was a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre Company.
As an actress, she was best known for her role as physical therapist Natalie Dearborn in the television soap opera “General Hospital” (1963). She also appeared in such television shows as “Search for Tomorrow” (1951) and the “Edge of Night” (1956), “Little House on the Prairie” (1974), “Cheers” (1982) and “Quantum Leap” (1989), according to the web site IMDb.
Her last acting credit appears to be in the television movie “Illusions” in 1992.
She and her husband, Nicholas Pryor, also worked together on the soap opera “The Nurses” (1965) before they divorced. They had no children.
Not much is known about her life in the central San Joaquin Valley, or when she moved here. Bee articles say she was a dance instructor at Sierra Performing Arts Center in Visalia as late as 2003. And before Cordell was put in an assisted-living facility, she had been registered to vote in Fresno since 2003 and lived in an upscale apartment at Cobblestone Village on Fruit Avenue, north of Herndon Avenue, voter records show.
Court records say Cordell lived at Somerford Place, paying about $6,300 a month, from November 2012 to July 2014, when Cordell’s probate lawyer, Curtis Rindlisbacher, finally got her released from the facility after he told a judge that she was being held against her will.
By law, Moeck said it is a violation of a person’s civil rights to be held in a nursing home unless the person has a conservatorship or consents to being there. In this case, the people who placed Cordell in Somerford Place only had her power of attorney over her and her assets.
An issue in the trial would have been whether Somerford Place is a locked facility and whether Cordell was free to leave.
In court papers and in pretrial motions Monday, Vincent D’Angelo, the lawyer for Fresno Heritage Partners, which operates Somerford Place, contended that Cordell had dementia and that it was in her best interest for her to remain. D’Angelo also told Fresno County Superior Court Judge Mark Snauffer that Somerford Place is not a locked facility, but has a delayed-egress locking system on exit doors. D’Angelo also disputed that Cordell was held against her will.
The trial would have been high stakes because Somerford Place and Fresno Heritage Partners are part of Five Star Senior Living, which has about 270 assisted-living facilities nationwide and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, authorities said.
Sadly, Ms. Cordell was found dead in the hotel the day before she was scheduled to move into a new facility.
Fresno attorney David Moeck
In general, the delayed egress system works like this: When someone attempts to operate a door, an alarm sounds and the door remains locked for a short time to alert staff. Once the delay time has elapsed, the door can be opened by activating the release mechanism. Hospitals and health-care facilities use delayed egress locking mechanisms for patients in psychiatric wards or Alzheimer’s units to help staff control the movements of individuals who are a danger to themselves or others.
But Moeck told Snauffer on Monday in pretrial discussions that Somerford Place describes itself as a locked facility to a state agency and the delayed-egress system made it difficult for Cordell to leave of her free will. In addition, Rindlisbacher had gone to Somerford Place to see Cordell, but the executive director told him he couldn’t, Moeck said in his trial brief. The director later relented after Rindlisbacher informed her that she was breaking the law and that Cordell had requested to see him.
“Somerford Place was later cited by the state of California for its refusal to allow Cordell to meet with Rindlisbacher,” the trial brief says.
In arguing his case, Moeck said Cordell was competent, could make her own decision, was not a danger to herself, and never suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia. In court papers, he contended Cordell was temporarily impaired from severe physical pain from breaking bones in a fall and from the side effects of prescription medicine.
A civil complaint lays out Cordell’s accusations against Somerford Place:
In August 2012, she was admitted to St. Agnes Medical Center for dehydration. She was prescribed Vicodin and was treated with antibiotics and intravenous fluids for six days before she was discharged and transferred to Willow Creek Convalescent home in Clovis for rehabilitation.
At Willow Creek, Cordell was examined by medical professionals “who noted that she had the capacity to makes decisions for herself and consistently scored 15 out of 15 on cognitive tests,” the complaint says.
Melinda Cordell’s civil complaint says her legal troubles began on Sept. 19, 2012, when she signed a power of attorney that designated two friends as agents and gave one of them control over her assets.
Cordell’s legal troubles began on Sept. 19, 2012, when she signed a power of attorney that designated her friends as her agents and one of them as trustee of her trust, giving him control over her assets. Two days later, Cordell fell and fractured her arm and pelvis while at Willow Creek. She was treated at St. Agnes, where “it was noted that she was alert and oriented to person, place, time, and situation,” the complaint says. After receiving treatment, Cordell was again prescribed Vicodin and returned to Willow Creek for rehabilitation.
In November 2012, Cordell left Willow Creek for The Windham, an upscale retirement home for seniors. A month later, Cordell was transferred to Somerford Place. Moeck contends the transfer was done without Cordell’s permission and without informing her that it was a locked facility that she could not leave.
In January 2013, Cordell’s doctors noted that Cordell had mild to moderate memory problems but she was mentally sound. She began making several phone calls to her trustees and others, saying she wanted to leave Somerford Place, the complaint says. The next month, a doctor told one of her trustees that Somerford Place could not hold Cordell at the assisted-living facility against her will, the complaint says. But the doctor never reported the violation to authorities, as required by California law.
In April 2014, Terrell examined Cordell and issued a report that concluded that Cordell “has the mental capacity to make decisions for herself including hiring an attorney and changing her estate plan,” the complaint says. Terrell also concluded that Cordell “does not and never has suffered from dementia” and that the likely cause of her temporary impairment was from severe physical pain and side effects from prescription medicine.
But Somerford Place staff, Cordell’s friends and others ignored “numerous facts, findings and reports indicating that Cordell was in fact not suffering from dementia, and should be released from the locked facility in which she was being held against her will,” the complaint says.
Cordell was able to reach out to a friend in Israel, who recommended Rindlisbacher, who got Cordell released from Somerford Place, and removed her friends who had power of attorney and control of her assets. Cordell then checked into Sunrise of Fresno, an assisted-living facility on North Cedar Avenue. When Sunrise didn’t work out, she checked into Extended Stay America, a two-star hotel in north Fresno, while she looked for a suitable living facility.
In her declaration in June 2014, Cordell told the judge: “Like anybody else, I may not know what the future holds for me, but I should have the right to make my own decisions and steer my life any direction I choose.”
“Sadly, Ms. Cordell was found dead in the hotel the day before she was scheduled to move into a new facility,” Moeck said in court papers.