Witness

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Psychologist Whistleblower Awarded $1 Million

Fired after testifying about state hospital's competency restoration program

In an unprecedented case, a civil jury has awarded $1 million in damages to a psychologist who was retaliated against after she challenged the validity of a state hospital's competency restoration methods.

Experts at the trial included Thomas Grisso and Randy Otto, prominent leaders in the field of forensic psychology who have written and taught extensively on best practices in the assessment of competency to stand trial.

After a month-long trial with dozens of witnesses, the jury found that Napa State Hospital failed to apply generally accepted professional standards for competency assessment and coerced its psychologists to find patients competent to stand trial "without regard to the psychologist's independent professional judgment, and without application of objective, standardized, normed, and reliable instruments."

Melody Samuelson. Photo credit JL Sousa, Napa Valley Herald
Melody Samuelson, the psychologist plaintiff, ran afoul of her supervising psychologists at the Northern California hospital in 2008, when she testified for the defense at a competency hearing in a capital murder case in Contra Costa County. She had treated "Patient A" the prior year and had doubts about whether he was capable of being restored to competency, as his current treatment team claimed. Both the prosecutor and a hospital psychiatrist who testified for the state complained about Samuelson's testimony to then-Chief Psychologist James Jones, who launched an investigation that ultimately led to Samuelson's firing.

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Samuelson was reinstated after a three-day hearing in 2011. An administrative law judge ruled that hospital administrators had failed to prove that Samuelson overstated her credentials during her 2008 testimony. Samuelson was not yet licensed at the time.

Samuelson subsequently filed a civil suit against the hospital, the chief psychologist, and two other supervising psychologists, claiming they engaged in a string of retaliatory actions against her even after her reinstatement. These actions included initiating a police investigation for perjury and taking action against her state license. She said she incurred the wrath of hospital administrators by repeatedly objecting to sham competency restoration practices designed to get defendants out of the hospital as quickly as possible, whether or not they were actually fit for trial.

Napa is the primary state psychiatric hospital serving Northern California, and houses defendants undergoing competency restoration treatment and those found not guilty by reason of insanity.

It has long been general knowledge that the overcrowded hospital routinely certifies criminal defendants as mentally competent with little seeming regard for whether they are truly fit to stand trial. I have evaluated many a criminal defendant shipped back to court with a formal certificate of competency restoration, whose mental condition is virtually identical to when he was sent to Napa for competency training in the first place. (Typically, such defendants now proudly recite random legal factoids that have been drilled into them—such as "the four pleas"—that are often irrelevant and unnecessary to their cases.)

But until Samuelson blew the whistle, there was little direct evidence from within the institutions of intentionality rather than mere bureaucratic incompetence. Samuelson alleged in her civil complaint that Chief Psychologist Jones "made clear to Samuelson that he was committed to…returning patients to court as competent to stand trial, and to minimizing the time for attaining such positive outcomes, regardless of the actual competency of individuals to stand trial."

According to Samuelson’s lawsuit, one reason that psychologists were pressured to find patients competent was to improve outcome statistics as mandated by a federal consent decree. In 2007, around the time of Samuelson’s hiring, the U.S. Attorney General's Office negotiated the consent decree mandating sweeping changes aimed at improving patient care and reducing suicides and assaults at Napa. The federal investigation had revealed widespread civil rights violations, including generic "treatment" and massive overuse of seclusion and restraints. 

Rote memorization

A longstanding criticism of the hospital's competency restoration program is that it focuses on rote memorization of simple legal terminology, ignoring the second prong of the Dusky legal standard, which requires that a defendant have the capacity to rationally assist his attorney in the conduct of his defense.

In her lawsuit, Samuelson accused the hospital of violating the standard of care for forensic evaluations and treatment by relying upon subjective assessment methods that are easily skewed. Defendant progress was measured using an unstandardized and unpublished instrument, the Revised Competency to Stand Trial Assessment Instrument, or RCAI, and a subjectively scored "mock trial" that was scripted on a case-by-case basis by poorly trained non-psychologists, the lawsuit alleged.

According to testimony at the Napa County civil trial, the hospital drilled patients on simple factual information about the legal system rather than teaching them how to reason rationally about their cases. Staff distributed a handbook outlining the factual questions and answers, posted the RCAI items at the nurse's station, and administered the RCAI repeatedly, coaching patients with the correct answers until they could pass the test.

Although forensic psychology experts Grisso and Otto were retained by opposite sides—Grisso by the hospital and Otto by the plaintiff—they agreed that this process falls short of the standard of practice in the field. It ignores the Constitutional requirement that, in order to be fit for trial, a criminal defendant must have a rational understanding of his own case as well as the capacity for rational decision-making. 

It has long been my observation that the hospital's program was generic and failed to address defendants' specific legal circumstances. Both Grisso, who authored one of the earliest and most widely referenced manuals for assessing competency to stand trial, now in its second edition, and Otto, co-author of The Handbook of Forensic Psychology and other seminal reference works, testified that competency evaluations must address the defendant's understanding of his or her own specific legal circumstances, sources close to the case told me.

Disclosure of test data unethical?

Another pivotal issue at trial, according to my sources, was whether Samuelson's disclosure of test data from two competency instruments she administered—the Evaluation of Competency to Stand Trial-Revised (ECST-R) and the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool (MacCAT-CA)—was improper. Samuelson disclosed the data at Patient A's 2008 competency hearing, after obtaining an authorization from the patient and a court order from the judge.

The hospital peer review committee that first recommended Samuelson's firing reportedly claimed that this disclosure was unethical and a violation of the American Psychological Association's Ethics Code.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The current version of the Ethics Code contain no prohibition on this type of disclosure in legal settings. Furthermore, fairness dictates that the legal parties be allowed to view data that are being invoked to decide a defendant's fate, so as to be able to independently analyze their accuracy and legitimacy. 

The jury levied $890,000 in damages against the hospital, $50,000 personally against Jones, described in the lawsuit as "the ringleader" of the campaign against Samuelson, and $30,000 each against two other supervising psychologists—Deborah White and Nami Kim—who allegedly conspired with Jones. Although punitive damages were not awarded, the jury found that the three psychologists acted intentionally and with "malice, oppression or fraud" toward Samuelson.

The state has until the end of next month to appeal the verdict, according to reporter Jon Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee, the only media outlet to cover the verdict so far.

* * * * *

The Sacramento Bee report on the verdict is HERE. Dr. Samuelson’s civil complaint is HERE; the jury’s verdicts are are HERE

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

 

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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