In an unprecedented case, a jury awarded Melody Samuelson about $1 million in damages after she was retaliated against for challenging the validity of Napa State Hospital’s (California), competency for trial restoration methods.

After a month long trial, the jury found:

  • There was a coercive environment at Napa State Hospital, where by use of peer review process psychologists were compelled to comply with an agenda to find patients competent to stand trial without regard for professional judgement or an application of objective, standardized, normed, or reliable methods.
  • Dr. Melody Samuelson had reasonable cause to believe that the hospital was in noncompliance with federal or state laws.
  • Dr. Melody Samuelson attempted to remedy the violations to a person in authority.
  • The Department of State Hospitals instead took adverse action against Dr. Melody Samuelson.
  • The Department of State Hospitals’ decision to take adverse action [to fire] Dr. Melody Samuelson was at least caused in part by her disclosures.
  • Dr. Melody Samuelson was harmed and that the Department of State Hospitals was a substantial factor in her harm.
  • The Department of State Hospitals would not have taken adverse action against Dr. Melody Samuelson had she not become a whistleblower.

The jury awarded her $675,000 in lost income, $3,222 in costs, and $211,778 in damages.  The hospital is responsible for the majority of the damages, with Jones responsible for $50,000 of it and each of the supervising psychologists responsible for $30,000.  The jury found that the three psychologists intentionally, “with malice, oppression, or fraud” mistreated Dr. Samuelson.

Dr. Melody Samuelson ran afoul of her supervisors 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 the patient in 2007 and did not believe that he could be restored to competency, as the other psychologists’ claimed.  The prosecutor and their hospital psychologist complained to the state about Dr. Samuelson to Chief Psychologist James Jones, who launched an investigation into Dr. Samuelson.  She was eventually fired for exposing the hospital’s activities.

Dr. Samuelson was reinstated in 2011.  An administrative law judge ruled that the hospital failed to prove that she overstated her credentials during the competency hearing in 2008.  She subsequently filed a lawsuit against the hospital, the chief psychologist, and two other supervising psychologists (Dr. Deborah White and Dr. Nami Kim).

She said that they engaged in a string of retaliatory actions against her for testifying to what she believed to be professionally correct in 2008 and even after she was reinstated in 2011.  These actions included initiating a police investigation into false perjury accusations and attempting to get her license to practice psychology revoked.  She incurred the wrath of the hospital for repeatedly objecting to their substandard competency practices designed to get defendants out of the hospital quickly and to trial regardless of whether they were legitimately fit to stand trial.

NSH is the primary hospital serving Northern California, which houses defendants who are undergoing competency restoration treatment and who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Before Dr. Samuelson blew the whistle, it was suspected that the overcrowded hospital rubber stamped defendants as fit for trial when they were not.  Many were drilled to recite random legal facts as if they understood their case when they were simply repeating what they were told.  But there was little evidence of the institution’s intentional misconduct until Dr. Samuelson exposed the program.  

Dr. Samuelson said in her 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 Dr. Samuelson, the psychologists were pressured to find patients competent to improve the statistics in regards to a federal consent decree in 2007.  When Dr. Samuelson was hired, the consent decree was a set of negotiated changes by the U.S. Attorney General to improve patient care and reduce suicides and assaults at NSH.  The federal investigation had revealed civil rights violations, including overuse of restraints.

A criticism of competency restoration programs in general is that they focus on memorization of legal terminology instead of helping the defendant to fully comprehend their case and rationally assist their attorney in defense.  Dr. Samuelson accused the hospital of violating the standard of care by relying upon biased methods.  A defendant’s mental status was measured by the Revised Competency to Stand Trial Assessment Instrument (not an accepted psychology test) and was scored in a “mock trial” method, scripted by poorly trained non-psychologist staff.

According to testimony at the civil trial, the hospital would drill into the patients simple legal facts instead of helping them comprehend what was happening.  Staff made patients read a handbook outlining the factual Q & A of the RCAI and would coach patients, telling them the correct answers, so that they could pass the unstandardized test.

Forensic psychology experts retained by both the plaintiff and the defense agreed that the hospital’s methods fell short of standard acceptable practice.  The process ignored Constitutional requirements, including that a defendant must have a rational understanding as well as the capacity to make rational decisions before they can stand trial.  Both experts also said that defendants should have an understanding of not just the generic legal environment, but of their own specific legal circumstances.

Dr. Samuelson was fired after she disclosed the data of two tests she administered to the defendant in the 2008 case, the ECST-R and the MacCAT-CA.  She did so after obtaining permission from the patient and from the judge.  The hospital’s peer review committee first recommended that she be fired after they claimed that this disclosure was unethical.  However, according to the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code, there is no prohibition on disclosing test results and data in a legal setting.

The state has a month to decide whether to appeal the verdict.


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