Employment Discrimination in Mental Health Facilities

Blackburn v. Dep't of Soc. & Health Servs., 375 P.3d 1076 (Wash. 2016)

Washington Supreme Court rules that psychiatric hospital cannot modify staff assignments to accommodate racial prejudices of patient, even when patient threatens violence if staff members of a particular race are assigned to him.

Background: Plaintiffs were employees of a psychiatric hospital and challenged alleged discriminatory staffing practices. Employees were generally assigned a particular home ward, but could be reassigned based on a “pull list.” The pull list was meant to ensure that employees were reassigned to other wards on an equal basis. M.P., a particularly violent patient, threatened an African-American staff member, which resulted in a decision not to assign any African-American staff to that patient’s ward to ensure staff safety. The following day, a nurse directed that a white staff person be assigned to M.P.’s ward, which would have been a deviation from the pull list assignment system. The plaintiff employees sued claiming employment discrimination and disparate treatment. The trial court dismissed the claims, concluding the adverse employment action was not severe enough to be actionable and the overriding factor was safety. The plaintiffs appealed.

Holding: The Washington Supreme Court ruled that there were no valid legal justifications for the race-based determinations in the staffing directive. The court reversed the decision of the trial court on this claim and remanded for a determination of damages.

Notable Point:

Bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ): The court found it doubtful that a BFOQ defense could apply in this case, but ruled that it had been waived by the defense at trial.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 3