The 135-year-old California Department of State Hospitals facility for the mentally ill houses around 1,150 patients committed by the criminal courts, many of whom were considered incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.
It was psychologist Melody Jo Samuelson’s job to make those assessments and she sued the hospital after claiming they fired her for protesting a policy that declared ill people well just to pack them off to prison.
Last week, a judge affirmed the jury’s decision in February that she was wrongfully terminated and, after being reinstated, was harassed as a whistleblower. Samuelson was granted a $1 million judgment against the hospital and three employees.
Samuelson was hired in 2006 and received good reviews until 2008 when she testified in a case where it was alleged that a patient had been improperly assessed as competent to stand trial. She told the court that the hospital did not use adequate methods to analyze patients.
The psychologist said the hospital immediately retaliated against her. She alleged that James Jones, Napa’s chief of psychology, and two other employees, proctor Deborah White and supervisor Nami Kim, conspired to make her life miserable. Samuelson was accused of committing perjury in an August 2010 patient hearing and fired.
She appealed her firing and filed a written Whistleblower Retaliation Complaint with the State Personnel Board in December of that year. Samuelson was reinstated in 2011 but the retaliation allegedly continued. Her pay was shorted, false documents remained in her file and she was given an entry-level job rather than the clinical position she previously held.
Defendants claimed actions taken against her were based on what they considered unacceptable testimony at a competency hearing and her performance. They considered her criticism of the hospital to be merely professional assessments, not whistleblower complaints.
Her professional assessment of Napa was not pretty.
She alleged in her complaint that Jones pushed to have patients declared competent “regardless of the actual competency of individuals to stand trial.” The goal was to “falsely prop up the Program’s positive results, or favorable outcomes.” The program itself “improperly facilitated an overly subjective, non-standardized and unreliable assessment of the competency of its patients.”
Katharine Mieszkowski at The Bay Citizen profiled a dangerous and beleaguered Napa State Hospital in December 2010. Patricia Tyler, a psychiatrist at the hospital since 2006, said, “Every single unit is contaminated in its atmosphere with a culture of violence.”
That shouldn’t be surprising. As of 2010, 86% of the patients were committed by the criminal courts. That’s about four times as many as 15 years before, the result of a statewide policy shift to move mental patients out of large state facilities to small community homes. Many of the Napa patients had already been deemed incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.
As Ken Murch, the chief negotiator for the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, described the situation: “Our mental health hospitals, basically, in the state are an extension of the criminal justice system.”