Atascadero State Hospital nurse claims gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation

Atascadero State Hospital.
Atascadero State Hospital. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A supervising psychiatric technician at Atascadero State Hospital is accused of subjecting a female nurse to dangerous situations and assignments as retaliation for complaining about sexist behavior, according to testimony in a civil jury trial playing out at the Paso Robles Courthouse.

Janet Ochotorena, 53, a former registered nurse at the hospital, which treats violent male criminal offenders suffering from mental illness, claims the Department of State Hospitals failed to take action against a male supervising psychiatric technician who discriminated against her and later retaliated — in the form of leaving her in dangerous situations with patients — when she complained.

She accuses the supervisor of sex and gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and says the agency failed to remedy the behavior. She is seeking unspecified general and compensatory damages for mental, physical and emotional stress, as well as reimbursement for attorney’s fees.

The Department of State Hospitals denies all the allegations, claiming Ochotorena has failed to prove any of the incidents happened, didn’t exhaust her administrative remedies and failed to mitigate her own damages. The department also says that any emotional or mental distress was either caused by pre-existing conditions or arose out of the scope of her employment, and that she “did not exercise ordinary care, caution, and prudence” in avoiding the damages.

In her lawsuit filed in October 2014, Ochotorena said she was hired as a nurse at the hospital in 2008. In October 2012, she said, psychiatric technician Alfred Sweet became her supervisor and began leaving her alone with patients. ASH policy requires that employees work in groups of at least three at all times, according to the lawsuit.

Almost immediately, Sweet began leaving her unaccompanied in places like the patient showers, or in a hallway where she was surrounded by six patients, prompting her to lock herself in an office until Sweet or other staff returned. She reported Sweet’s actions to his supervisor, who took no action, the lawsuit alleges.

After she complained, Sweet allegedly told her, “See what happens to female staff that don’t listen or do what I say,” the lawsuit reads.

In the following months, the lawsuit says, Sweet made other statements to Ochotorena, some in front of other staff and patients, saying “the last woman to mess with me I had moved off the unit,” and telling her co-workers that “everyone knows what a bitch Janet is.”

Ochotorena then filed a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office of Human Rights, which went nowhere, she claims. She was transferred to another unit, but Sweet’s supervisor, who didn’t take action against Sweet, was also transferred as her new supervisor, the lawsuit says.

About that time, Sweet began stalking her in the parking lot, staring at her and waiting to enter the facility until she got out of her car, she claims. She filed a report with the state Department of Police Services, which provides law enforcement at ASH. That report also went nowhere, she says.

Ochotorena then filed a tort claim with the Victim’s Compensation Board in January 2014; it was denied. She then filed the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, she claims she now suffers from insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks. Her doctor has since diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress syndrome, she claims.

Ochotorena went on medical leave in May 2013 and has not been cleared to return to work, according to her co-counsel, David Sarnoff.

With male staff, it was more friendly. With female staff, it was, ‘I need this done,’ ‘I don’t care what else you’re doing.’

James Clark, ASH psychiatric technician testifying about Janet Ochotorena’s supervisor, Alfred Sweet

On Tuesday, Ochotorena’s attorney, Larry Organ, called to the stand James Clark, a psychiatric technician who worked with Ochotorena in Unit 12 and who agreed with Organ’s characterization of Sweet as “flippant” and “demanding” of women staffers in the ward.

“With male staff, it was more friendly,” Clark testified. “With female staff, it was, ‘I need this done,’ ‘I don’t care what else you’re doing. ’”

Clark told the jury that he both witnessed and was told by Ochotorena that she was left alone with patients when Sweet was the unit’s supervising shift lead, and he agreed with Organ’s statement that Sweet’s “sexist attitude toward women created safety issues for female staffers.”

Those concerns prompted Clark to report Sweet’s behavior to his supervisor.

“He said something like he was aware and it was being taken care of,” Clark said.

Under cross examination by Deputy Attorney General Elisabeth Frater, Clark admitted that he never witnessed the incidents in which Sweet allegedly left Ochotorena alone with patients in the showers, though he said he did witness Sweet make the “bitch” comment.

Frater attempted to paint Clark as having a “chip on his shoulder” and brought up his disciplinary record at ASH, noting he once let his medical license lapse.

A second witness, Adam Shoor, was an Office of Human Rights investigator assigned to Ochotorena’s formal complaint with the agency. He testified that he met with Ochotorena, who told Shoor that Sweet was “paternal-sounding and controlling toward me,” and requested she “not be subjected to work with Al Sweet ever again.”

Asked about the incidents Ochotorena reported to him, Shoor told Organ: “There is evidence that it did occur.” He added, however, that it was unclear if some of the incidents were based on sex or gender discrimination or if they were retaliatory in nature.

“He put her in danger, that’s what she initially complained about, that he didn’t know what he was doing,” Shoor said. “There was no indication that any of these negligency things had to do with sex.”

Sweet denied the allegations when he met with Shoor, saying that the “mess with me” and “bitch” statements were misunderstandings. Other witnesses Shoor interviewed contradicted Sweet’s account.

The trial begins its fourth day of testimony Thursday at the Paso Robles Superior Courthouse.