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Blackburn v. State, Department of Social and Health Services

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

September 25, 2013



RONALD B. LEIGHTON, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #94), Plaintiffs' collective Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Dkt. #109), and Plaintiff Jacob Dau's separate Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Dkt. #113). Western State Hospital ("WSH") is a State-run psychiatric hospital in Lakewood, Washington. WSH provides inpatient treatment for individuals who suffer from serious long-term mental illness. The Plaintiffs are a group of nurses and Psychiatric Security Attendants ("PSA") who have worked at WSH. The group of Plaintiffs includes Caucasians, African-Americans, and members of other racial groups. This dispute arises out of administrative decisions related to the care of M.P., a WSH patient who threatened to kill Marley Mann, an African-American PSA. Neither M.P. nor Mann is a party to this litigation. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants adopted a discriminatory staffing directive that restricted darker-skinned PSAs from working with M.P. and consequently required the white PSAs to work with M.P. more frequently. Plaintiffs have alleged violations of Title VII, the 14th Amendment, and a number of statutes. They seek a permanent injunction and monetary damages. For the reasons state below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED and Plaintiffs' motions are DENIED.


M.P. is one of WSH's most dangerous patients. He has been a patient at WSH since 2004 and is housed in ward F-8. Ward F-8 exclusively houses male patients who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Since becoming a patient at WSH, M.P. has assaulted approximately 70 different people. At one point, he was kept either in restraints or in seclusion, nearly continuously, for over a year.

On September 24, 2009, Jacob Dau, a black PSA from Sudan, had been "pulled" from his normal assignment in a different ward to help with M.P. While Dau and other PSAs were helping M.P. take a shower, another PSA, Leon Kimmerling, told M.P. that "they eat white people in Africa, " and then chomped his teeth together. WSH promptly investigated the incident and concluded that Kimmerling had made inappropriate racial comments to a co-worker in the presence of a patient. As punishment, WSH issued Kimmerling a written reprimand. He was not reinstated in his normal position in ward F-8 until after a different investigation into his conduct on a separate matter concluded in October of 2010. Dau has not had any issues while working with M.P. and has not been forced work with Kimmerling since the incident.

A second, unrelated series of events forms the basis for the majority of Plaintiffs' claims. In late March of 2011, M.P. stopped taking his prescribed anti-psychotic medications. He became delusional and started to fixate on Marley Mann, one of the two PSAs regularly assigned to monitor him during the swing-shift. On the evening of March 24, 2011, M.P. accused Mann of poisoning his coffee and then threw his coffee at Mann. Later that night, M.P. again accused Mann of tampering with his coffee. While complaining to a nurse, M.P. directed a number of racial threats at Mann, who is black, including threats to kill him. After asking M.P. if another staff member would be safe monitoring him, the nurse reassigned a non-black PSA to monitor M.P. in Mann's place.

One of the day-shift staff members reported M.P.'s violent fixation with Mann to Dr. Mary Louise Jones, the Clinical Operations Director at WSH. Dr. Jones in turn discussed the matter with RN3 nurses Lila Rooks and Kelly Saatchi. RN3 nurses are in charge of making staff assignments. Dr. Jones asked Rooks and Saatchi to make sure that the staff members were safe. Although M.P. had only threatened Mann, Rooks and Saatchi mistakenly thought that M.P. had threatened all black staff members. Accordingly, they decided to restrict all black or darkskinned PSAs from working with M.P. until his delusions subsided.

Plaintiffs contend that WSH issued a race-based staffing directive on Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Defendants claim that the directive was not issued until Friday, April 2, 2011. It is undisputed, however, that on Friday, April 2, someone wrote "NO BLACKS TO F8" on the white board in the RN3 office. The next day, an RN3 instructed Polly Blackburn (an RN2 charge nurse for ward F-5) to send three PSAs to different wards, including one to F-8. In accordance with the staffing directive, the RN3 told Blackburn that the PSA sent to F-8 had to be white. Blackburn objected and refused to comply with the order.

On Tuesday, April 5, 2011, Blackburn filed an Administrative Report of Incidents ("AROI"). In the AROI, Blackburn complained that the staffing-directive was discriminatory and illegal. The next day, Blackburn met with Saatchi and another RN3 to discuss the AROI. Blackburn claims that Saatchi angrily told her "you should not have put this on an AROI, you should not have done this, " "there is not going to be any investigation, there is nothing here but opinion, not fact, " and "do you really want this in your file? This is going to look really bad in your file." Blackburn claims that the other RN3 also told her that she should have waited before filing a complaint. Saatchi and the other RN3 dispute that they were verbally aggressive towards Blackburn. They claim that they just told Blackburn that an AROI was not the appropriate method for filing this type of complaint.

On May 19, 2011, the Department of Justice issued all of the Plaintiffs right to sue letters. Plaintiffs filed their Complaint with this Court that same day. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, the 14th Amendment, the 1st Amendment, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), and 42 U.S.C. § 1986. Plaintiffs' Complaint also alleged violations of the Washington Law Against Discrimination, but they have voluntarily dismissed those claims without prejudice. This Court denied Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction on August 12, 2011. Defendants filed their motion for summary judgment on July 25, 2013. On July 29, 2013, Plaintiffs collectively filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment and Dau filed a separate motion for partial summary judgment on his hostile work environment claim.


Summary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact which would preclude summary judgment as a matter of law. Once the moving party has satisfied its burden, it is entitled to summary judgment if the non-moving party fails to present, by affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file, "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). "The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is not sufficient." Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir.1995). Factual disputes whose resolution would not affect the outcome of the suit are irrelevant to the consideration of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In other words, "summary judgment should be granted where the nonmoving party fails to offer evidence from which a reasonable [fact finder] could return a [decision] in its favor." Triton Energy, 68 F.3d at 1220.

A. Title VII Discrimination Claims

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against any individual based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). To prevail on a Title VII claim, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Vasquez v. Co. of Los Angeles, 349 F.3d 634, 640 (9th Cir. 2004). If the plaintiff is able to establish a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its allegedly discriminatory conduct. Id. If the defendant is able to do so, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant's reason is mere pretext for discrimination. Id. At all times, the plaintiff ...

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