Court: Race-based staffing decision violates anti-discrimination law

A psychiatric hospital's decision to block non-white employees from working in a part of the facility after a patient made threats violated state anti-discrimination law, the Washington Supreme Court ruled last week.

The decision to not use non-white employees was made in April 2011 at Western State Hospital, after a patient prone to “violent behaviors and delusions” made threats against a black attendant. The patient was also known to be “particularly violent and intimidating,” according to court documents.

A staffing directive was issued the weekend the threats were made that only white employees would be sent to work in the ward where the patient was housed. The nurse in charge of staffing refused to comply with the directive, as well as with directions to send the worker “with the lightest skin,” noting that the next three employees set to work in the ward were people of color.

Nine Western State employees filed a complaint against the facility, claiming the hospital discriminated against them when it made the race-based staffing decision. A trial court dismissed the group's complaint in 2015.

The patient's threats were not enough to justify a hospital's staffing decision, the high court ruled.

“According to the trial court's findings of fact, the State made staffing decisions that explicitly prevented certain employees from working on a particular ward over the course of one weekend due to their race,” wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst. “Although the trial court found these staffing orders were ‘likely an overreaction,' this does not change the resulting discriminatory nature of the staffing decisions.”

The case will now return back to the lower court to determine damages for the employees involved.