The State Worker

California state employee awarded $1 million in whistleblower case

California’s state hospital system and three of its employees must pay a combined $1 million award to a state hospital psychologist after a jury decided she was pressured to declare mentally ill patients competent for trial using questionable assessment methods and then fired for exposing the policy.

Napa State Hospital psychologist Melody Jo Samuelson’s lawsuit ended with a monthlong trial and a verdict that she suffered retaliation for whistleblowing. A judge late last week affirmed the jury’s decision.

Department of State Hospitals spokesman Ralph Montaño declined to answer questions about allegations in the lawsuit or whether the department will continue fighting it.

“The department is in the process of evaluating the verdict,” Montano said in an email earlier this week.

Samuelson’s lawyer, Kirk B. Freeman, said his client is “happy with the jury’s verdict,” but “she still has concerns about how she’s going to be treated at the hospital.”

According to court records, the state hired Samuelson in early 2006 and granted her privileges at Napa State Hospital that included assessing criminally accused patients’ fitness to stand trial. The records say she received favorable reviews.

Not long after Samuelson started work, the state and federal government settled on changes to end civil rights abuses at Napa and three other state hospitals where mentally ill inmates sometimes languished without treatment.

Samuelson’s court complaint alleged that James Jones, the Napa hospital’s chief of psychology, “made it clear … that he was committed to … returning patients to court as competent to stand trial.” To do that, Jones lowered evaluation standards and pressured staff to use unreliable methods to determine patients’ competency, according to the complaint. One assessment technique, the complaint said, used a “mock trial” method that prepared patients to answer evaluation questions by rote memorization.

Jones’ agenda was to move patients out of the hospital and “improve outcome statistics,” Samuelson’s court filing alleged, but “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 pressure staff to go along with the fallible patient-evaluation methods, the complaint said.

In 2008, Samuelson was subpoenaed in a case that contended a patient had been wrongly assessed as competent to stand trial. She testified that Napa used inadequate patient-assessment methods. Shortly after that, according to the complaint, Jones, and two employees, proctor Deborah White and supervisor Nami Kim, together orchestrated a series of retaliatory moves that included making false statements about Samuelson, manipulating her credentials file and using the peer-review process to “extort” her.

The complaint alleged that Jones, White and Kim then falsely accused Samuelson of committing perjury during testimony in a patient’s case, leading to the hospital firing her on Aug. 9, 2010.

Samuelson appealed the termination to the State Personnel Board, which ordered her to be reinstated in 2011.

But the retaliation continued, Samuelson alleged. Her complaint said her pay was shorted, that the department deducted contributions for insurance premiums from back pay for coverage Samuelson never received, and that documents proven false remained in her file.

The hospital assigned her to an entry-level position, according to the court records, instead of resuming a clinical job that would help advance her career.

On Feb. 21, a jury agreed with Samuelson’s claim of whistleblower retaliation. It hit the Department of State Hospitals with an $890,000 judgment for damages. Jones was ordered to pay $50,000, and Kim and White $30,000 each for their roles.

The state has until the last week of April to appeal, or the judgment will stand. Officials also could ask for a new trial or ask the judge to overturn the jury’s verdict, although such requests are rarely granted.

Kim and White are still employed by the Department of State Hospitals, which declined to make them available for interviews. Jones retired in 2010. He could not be reached for comment.