Santa Rosa psychiatric hospital agrees to $2.85 million settlement over workplace conditions

Posted September 20th, 2021.

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By Martin Espinoza

The owners of Sonoma County’s only psychiatric hospital, Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, have agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle a lawsuit that alleges a number of state labor code violations, including significant understaffing that led to unsafe working conditions for nurses and other staff.

The lawsuit, which names as defendant former director of nursing Teresa Brooke, was filed in 2018 by private attorneys on behalf of the state’s Labor & Workforce Development Agency through the Private Attorney General Act, or PAGA.

The act, which authorizes employees to file lawsuits to recover civil penalties for themselves, other employees and the state, is used in cases where the state does not have the resources to prosecute and enforce some cases, said Andrew Melzer, a partner with Sanford Heisler Sharp, a national public interest law firm.

Melzer described the case as a “landmark settlement” involving workplace health and safety violations litigated through PAGA. Melzer said there have likely been larger settlements involving traditional wage and hour violations.

“It is pretty groundbreaking in terms of a settlement covering health and safety issues across the whole facility and all the employees,” he said.

Representatives at Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, which is operated by Signature Healthcare Services, did not return a phone call Monday for comment. An attorney for Signature Healthcare, listed on the court order and judgment approving the PAGA settlement, could not be reached Monday.

Melzer was co-lead attorney in the lawsuit on behalf of the defendants. The other lead was Xinying Valerian, managing partner of Valerian Law, a Bay Area-based social justice boutique firm.

Valerian and Melzer said staffing ratios of registered nurses to patients at the the hospital, at times 19 patients to one registered nurse and another licensed staff member, created unsafe working environment for nurses and other staff.

Valerian said the state does not have a fixed ratio of registered nurses to patients for free-standing psychiatric hospitals like Aurora. Instead, she said, these hospitals must take into account a number of “acuity” factors associated with the severity of patients’ needs.

Valerian said that in contrast, “in a psych unit of a med/surge hospital, the minimum is one registered nurse for every six patients.”

Melzer said the much of the original lawsuit revolves around alleged understaffing was a way to “cut corners” and save money.

Under the settlement, the state will receive $2,046,750. Brooke is to receive $10,000 and $682,250 is to go to nurses and staff who worked at Aurora between April 29, 2016 and June 4, 2021, legal liability period. The rest of the funds are set aside to cover the cost of a settlement administrator and an independent expert who will evaluate the hospital’s policies and practices.

The expert will recommend changes to improve working conditions for front-line staff who care for psychiatric patients. The settlement also requires the hospital to notify employees that they will not face repercussions for speaking out about unsafe or unlawful practices.

Qiaojing Ella Zheng, a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp, said she hopes the settlement sets an example for “how psychiatric hospitals all over the state should protect the health and safety of these front-line healthcare workers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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