Politics & Government

Violent patient doesn’t justify race-based staffing, court rules

Western State Hospital in Lakewood is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state
Western State Hospital in Lakewood is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state The Associated Press file, 2015

The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Western State Hospital can’t assign staff members based on race considerations just because a delusional patient demands it.

The high court’s unanimous ruling reverses a 2015 decision from Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kitty-Ann Van Doorninck that dismissed discrimination claims from hospital staff members.

The lower court had sided with attorneys for the state hospital in Lakewood who argued employees didn’t suffer adverse treatment such as reduced hours, wages or status. The staffing decisions simply were meant to preserve patient safety.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and found assigning only white or light-skinned staff members to a particular patient was discrimination, regardless of intentions.

The Supreme Court found assigning only white or light-skinned staffers to a particular patient was still discrimination, regardless of good intentions.

“These overt race-based directives affected staffing decisions in such a manner as to constitute discrimination,” the ruling states. “We hold that the trial court erred in concluding otherwise.”

The underlying circumstances date to 2011. A violent patient assigned to one of the hospital’s forensic wards said he wanted only white attendants to help him. Attendants assist in the daily care of hospital patients.

The patient had a history of assaults against other patients and staff members. He had a history of methamphetamine abuse, and a pattern of failing to take medications, sometimes resulting in seclusion at the hospital, court records state. He also had threatened to assault black staff members.

The staffing decisions related to the patient lasted only a few days, according to court records; the race-based assignments were made in the theoretical interest of staff members and patient safety.

The directive came in the form of a shift note from a nurse that said, “No Blacks No Joey to F8” — meaning that neither blacks nor a Filipino staff member should be assigned to the patient’s ward.

The patient had a history of assaults against other patients as well as staff. He had a history of methamphetamine abuse, and a pattern of failing to take medications, sometimes resulting in seclusion at the hospital, court records state. He had also threatened to assault black staffers.

Another nurse, who was white, refused to comply with the directive, and later filed an administrative complaint about the policy. The nurse, Patricia Blackburn, became one of the nine plaintiffs — four whites, three blacks and two Filipinos — in the lawsuit.

An underlying argument from the staff members held that the policy discriminated against whites and people of color because it effectively forced whites to work more often with a violent patient while preventing people of color from doing their assigned jobs.

The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld one element of the lower court’s decision, agreeing that staff members were not subjected to hostile work environment because the staffing decisions were brief and not repeated.

The State has no valid legal justification for its discrimination.

Washington State Supreme Court

But the high court found that staffing decisions based exclusively on race violated state laws prohibiting such discrimination. The ruling cited an earlier case that found the reasons for discrimination did not matter; only the fact of it.

“The State has no valid legal justification for its discrimination,” the high court said.

The ruling returns the case to the lower court to determine appropriate damages and attorney fees.

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