The high court says race-based staffing decisions at Western State Hospitalviolated the state’s anti-discrimination law.
The state Supreme Court has overturned a trial-court ruling and found that the state’s largest psychiatric hospital violated Washington’s anti-discrimination law when managers ordered that only white staffers be sent to deal with a violent patient who had made threats against a black employee.
The unanimous ruling, authored by Justice Mary Fairhurst, reversed a 2015 decision by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kitty-Ann van Doorninck, who after a bench trial had dismissed the complaint of nine Western State Hospital employees who claimed the hospital illegally took their race into account when making staffing decisions in response to the patient’s race-based threats.
The high court sent the case back to the judge and ordered her to determine what damages and attorney fees to award to the employees.
Van Doorninck held a six-day bench trial in an employment-discrimination lawsuit filed by the employees, which was watched closely by the American Civil Liberties Union and employment attorneys. She dismissed the plaintiffs’ arguments that they were subject to a hostile workplace, writing that a staffing decision over one weekend “did not rise to the level of severe or pervasive harassment.”
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The lawsuit challenged staffing decisions made over a weekend in April 2011 involving a delusional patient who had made racist remarks and threats toward one of his nurses, who is African American, and that he would assault any African American working with him.
The patient, who is identified only by the initials “M.P.,” had been committed to the psychiatric hospital in 2004 after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for an unspecified crime. He was known as a “particularly violent and intimidating patient” who over the years assaulted other patients and staff, according to the ruling.
Leading up to that weekend, M.P. had made what his treatment-team coordinator had determined where credible threats against one of his nurses, who is African-American. Patricia Blackburn, a white nurse who was in charge of staffing, was ordered to deviate from normal staffing rotations and not assign any African Americans to care for M.P.
Blackburn, according to the lawsuit, refused to depart from the normal rotation list and noted that the next three employees listed were all persons of color, the court noted. When directed to send the person with the lightest skin, she again refused.
The registered nurse who made the transfer request ultimately directed Bonifacio Fornillos — another plaintiff in the case — to go to the ward, and the transfer occurred without incident.
The court said the decision violated the state’s anti-discrimination law.