Hospital workers sue over patient who requested only white workers

By Gene Johnson
The Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — Nine Western State Hospital workers who said their bosses illegally accommodated a patient’s request for white caregivers have filed a federal lawsuit saying the practice is not only discriminatory, but dangerous.

After a mentally ill patient with a history of attacking hospital workers requested only white caregivers, managers agreed, and hospital executives declined to investigate when the workers complained about the policy, the workers said in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

The workers, of various ethnicities, are assigned to Western State’s Center for Forensic Studies, most of them as psychiatric security attendants who help with daily care of patients. They say that the ongoing practice barred dark-skinned employees from work they would normally be assigned to do and forced white or light-skinned workers to spend extra time with a violent patient.

The Department of Social and Health Services, which runs the hospital, is named as a defendant.

Spokesman Thomas Shapley said Friday that state lawyers are reviewing the lawsuit and he could not comment on its specific claims.

“The safety of patients and staff is our number one priority — it always is,” he said.

Jesse Wing, a Seattle attorney who represents the workers, said those goals weren’t served by the policy.

“When a Filipino guy shows up on a ward and a manager sends him away, saying, ‘No, we need someone who’s white,’ that Filipino guy has just lost some credibility among the patients,” Wing said.

“This is a dangerous place to work, and it creates a more dangerous situation for the worker when the patients see that he or she no longer has the support of management.”

He called the hospital’s decision “bad medicine” — like giving in to a patient’s demand for a scotch-and-soda, or for young, attractive nurses.

“The patients don’t run the hospital. You don’t give into their irrational desires,” he said.

The lawsuit said that at one point last month, a nurse left a shift note declaring “No Blacks No Joey to F8” — meaning that neither Blacks nor Asian Filipino plaintiff Joey Lopez should be assigned to the patient’s ward. The patient was identified only by his initials, M.P.

Another nurse, Patricia Blackburn, who is white, said she was appalled by the directive and refused to comply. The three security attendants due to be assigned to patients next were all minorities — a Black African, an African American, and an Asian Filipino — and Blackburn told a managing nurse she would not skip over them because of their skin color.

Relenting slightly, the nurse asked, “Who is the lightest skinned of the three?” and proceeded to order Blackburn to send the Asian Filipino to the patient’s ward.

Blackburn said that when she filed an administrative complaint about the incident, an upset supervisor told her the policy was part of the patient’s care plan, devised by the director of the Center for Forensic Studies, Dr. Mary Louise Jones.

The decision to grant the patient’s request was apparently made in March, Wing said, though it’s not clear why the policy was instituted then. Some of the plaintiffs had worked with the patient for years without any racially motivated problems, he said.

The lawsuit said that in 2009, one security attendant told the patient repeatedly — in the presence of three other attendants, one of whom was African — “They eat white people in Africa.” The attendant who made the comments was temporarily reassigned to the kitchen.

To the extent that the patient’s professed racism is genuine, it might have been exacerbated by that episode, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claims violations of equal protection and civil rights. It asks the court to bar Western Statefrom continuing the policy, and seeks compensation for emotional distress as well as punitive damages. ♦

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