A clinical social worker at Atascadero State Hospital is suing the facility for whistleblower retaliation after she was assaulted by a patient with a history of violence whom she claims she was assigned to treat as payback for questioning ASH’s release of patients.
Amy Consolati, who is now on disability retirement, filed a lawsuit Friday against the facility and the California Department of State Hospitals after a whistleblower complaint to the State Personnel Board was rejected in January.
A day before her filing, her attacker was convicted in San Luis Obispo Superior Court of battery resulting in great bodily injury and sentenced to four years in prison.
In her lawsuit, Consolati claims the hospital staff is pushing to release patients who don’t meet the criteria set by state law and is retaliating against staffers who speak out.
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“These patients were severely symptomatic, behaviorally unstable, lacked community living skills, had inordinate lengths of stay, and most had serious medical issues,” the lawsuit reads.
“(Hospital management) has a pattern and practice of retaliating against employees who refuse to break the law, ‘cut corners,’ or complain about possible illegal activity.”
Claims made in lawsuits are one-sided and have not been argued in court.
Consolati is seeking compensation from loss of past and future earnings, health benefits and medical bills, as well as unspecified general damages and attorney fees.
Spokespersons for Atascadero State Hospital referred comment to the Department of State Hospitals.
Ralph Montano, spokesman for the agency, said in an email that the department does not comment on ongoing litigation.
In January 2013, the lawsuit alleges, Consolati and a registered nurse reported to management the suspected wrongful isolation of a patient by three staff members, who created fraudulent documentation to justify the seclusion.
Following her criticism, the lawsuit alleges, the three staffers then worked to discredit Consolati and excluded her from clinical meetings.
In February 2013, she was written up for “rude and discourteous (behavior and) unprofessional conduct,” according to the filing, and was involuntarily transferred to another residential unit within ASH in March.
While there, she raised concerns after witnessing “a flurry” of forensic evaluations of patients recommending release, even though Consolati told supervisors the patients did not meet criteria for safe discharge, according to the filing.
On Sept. 6, 2013, a Friday, a subpoena was issued to Consolati to testify at one such patient’s trial. That Monday, she was again transferred to another unit, according to the suit, and later testified at the trial that she was being denied access to the patient and his records and was unable to prepare for her testimony.
Nine days after her latest transfer, Consolati was punched in the face by a patient the lawsuit contends was known to staff as having recently been violent. The lawsuit alleges that Consolati was not familiar with patients in that housing unit and was not given standard supervisory support or overlapping clinical social worker coverage that could have protected her.
According to a police report of the incident, Consolati was approached by the patient about a package he was waiting for in the mail. When she said she did not have the package, the patient punched her in the nose and fled, according to the report.
Following her subpoena and testimony, Consolati received a downgraded annual discipline and performance evaluation, though she had consistently met, if not exceeded, standards in previous years, according to the lawsuit.
“Plaintiff’s whistleblower activities were a motivating reason behind (management’s) adverse employment actions,” the lawsuit reads.
Consolati said Wednesday that she has nothing to add beyond what the lawsuit states and referred a reporter to her attorney, Bradley Gage.
Gage said Consolati’s supervisors put Consolati directly in harm’s way in order to silence her criticism of the hospital’s release of patients.
“It’s unconscionable to intentionally put an employee into a potentially dangerous situation knowing that employee would likely be hurt or killed,” Gage said. “Their goal should be to provide for the safe and effective treatment of patients, but also to protect the community from individuals that it would be unsafe to release because of very real mental, emotional and medical problems.”
Consolati is not alone in her criticism of Atascadero State Hospital.
In 2006, under threat of a federal lawsuit for alleged violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the hospital was placed under federal oversight, which ended in November 2011.
In May 2014, a report — filed in U.S. District Court by a court monitor as part of a then-ongoing lawsuit against the state — found that after federal oversight ended at ASH, psychiatric staffing levels and patients’ access to group and individual therapy dropped.
The hospital was singled out among other state institutions for discharging some patients prematurely based on their length of stay rather than their mental readiness. Moreover, psychiatrists feared reprisal from administrators if they did not approve a patient’s discharge, the report reads.
“In my mind, Amy is a victim because she was trying to do the right thing, and employers don’t have the right to make their employees victims when they’re trying to protect their community,” Gage said.
A hearing for Consolati’s civil suit has not yet been scheduled, according to court records.