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California State Whistleblower Case – UPDATE

WHISTLEBLOWER UPDATE – We recently reported on the below discussed case of Melody Jo Samuelson vs. The California Department of State Hospitals. The article below discusses the case and provides an update as to its status.

The California state hospital system was recently found to have retaliated against one of its employees for seeking to uncover and stop unlawful practices within the Napa State Hospital’s psychology department. At issue were alleged practices by the hospital to cut costs and patient levels by using questionable methods of evaluation to declare patients competent to stand trial, without regard to whether they were actually competent.

In order to stand trial in the United States a defendant must be mentally competent to participate in his or her defense in a meaningful manner and must also be able to comprehend the charges being brought against him or her. Mental illness and/or disability must be evaluated by trained professionals, and opinions from those professionals must be provided to the court, along with recommendations, before a person can be declared competent to stand trial.

A recent case, brought by psychologist Melody Jo Samuelson ended with a jury award of $1 million as a result of a verdict that she had been retaliated against for whistleblowing about unlawful or questionable practices on the part of the Napa State Hospital in declaring patients competent to stand trial.

According to her counsel, Samuelson had been hired by the State in early 2006 to act as a psychologist with Napa State Hospital, assessing patients who had been charged with criminal acts, to determine whether they were competent to stand trial for their alleged crimes. Her personnel files indicated that she had received favorable reviews after being hired.

Several months after she began working at Napa, government officials at both the state a federal levels instituted changes at the hospital to address alleged civil rights abuses there and at three other hospitals that had resulted in patients languishing for lengthy periods of time without treatment.

In response to the changes, James Jones, the hospital’s Chief of Psychology altered policies and made it clear that “he was committed to…returning patients to court as competent to stand trial.” Toward that end, Jones lowered evaluation standards, making it easier for psychologists to declare patients competent. He also allegedly pressured staff to use unreliable methods to determine competency, even going so far as to institute a ‘mock trial’ method where patients would undergo practice trials and learn answers to questions that would make them appear to be competent. Patients would learn the questions and answers by rote and then practice them in front of fake judges and lawyers.

According to Samuelson’s complaint, Jones created a system of questionable practices and pressure on staff to increase discharge rates from the hospital, moving patients out in order to “improve outcome statistics.” The complaint added that “patients were at risk of having their psychologists testifying that they were competent to stand trial when they were, in fact, not competent to stand trial.”

Jones used the hospital’s peer-review process to apply pressure to staff to go along with the dubious patient evaluation methods and to declare them fit for trial.

In 2008, Samuelson testified under oath in a trial where the defendant’s counsel was contending that the State had improperly declared the defendant fit to stand trial when, in fact, he was not. Samuelson testified that Napa used inadequate patient-assessment methods in the defendant’s case.

The testimony did not sit well with hospital administration and shortly thereafter, Jones, along with two other administrators, proctor Deborah White, and supervisor Nami Kim began a system of retaliatory efforts designed to punish Samuelson for her whistleblowing.

According to the complaint, Jones, White and Kim made false statements about Samuelson, manipulated her credential’s file and used the peer review process to ‘extort’ her. They also accused her of committing perjury during her testimony in a patient’s case, which led the hospital to terminate her on August 9th, 2010.

She appealed the termination to the State Personnel Board and after hearing the evidence, the Board reinstated her in 2011.

Samuelson returned to work, but also returned to the retaliatory efforts she’d been subjected to earlier. According to the complaint, her pay was shorted, the department deducted contributions for insurance premiums from back pay for coverage Samuelson never received, and that documents proven false remained in her file.

In addition, rather than returning her to her original clinical position, she was given an entry-level job that would not be beneficial in the advancement of her career.

After speaking with an attorney, Samuelson brought suit alleging that the hospital, and more particularly Jones, White and Kim, had engaged in retaliation in an effort to punish her for her whistleblowing activities.

Earlier this year a jury agreed with Samuelson, finding that hospital did, in fact, engage in retaliatory efforts. They awarded her a judgment for damages in the amount of $890,000 from Department of State Hospitals. Jones was ordered to pay $50,000 and White and Kim were each ordered to pay $30,000 for their part in the unlawful conduct.

UPDATE:

The Department of State Hospitals had the option of filing an appeal in the case, and did so with Division 2 of the 1st District Appellate Court of California.

According to court records the State never filed its opening brief and moved to dismiss the appeal, shortly thereafter. They have not pursued an appeal since then, so the jury verdict stands.