New Lawsuit Filed Against Unity Center Amid Safety Complaints

A longtime mental health therapist for Legacy Health has filed a lawsuit against his employer, accusing managers of retaliating against him for repeatedly complaining about patient and staff safety at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland.

Rick Scoggin was hired by Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in 1986 and transferred to Unity soon after it opened in early 2017, the lawsuit said. Within the first nine months, he filed five complaints, including one with Oregon Occupational Safety and Health over assaults by patients against patients and staff, including himself. The lawsuit, first reported on by the Portland Business Journal, indicates that he was punished by his managers for speaking out.

The lawsuit coincides with an unrelated decision by the National Labor Relations Board that affirmed the right of nurses at Unity to form a bargaining unit, something that Legacy had contested. A nurse who championed formation of the bargaining unit under the Oregon Nurses Association told The Lund Report that safety remains a chief concern. 

“Patients are still acting out against other patients,” said Sarah Mittelman, a charge nurse at Unity who was elected chair of the Unity nurses’ executive committee. “Patients are still assaulting staff -- it still happens.”

Legacy did not respond to a request for comment about ongoing safety concerns. It did issue a statement about the lawsuit, saying it does not comment on litigation. Legacy has not yet filed an answer to the lawsuit in court.

“Legacy Health is aware of a recently-filed lawsuit,” the statement said. “Legacy Health continues to be 100% committed to open, respectful and productive relationships with all staff.”

Complaints of violence, abuse and neglect plagued Unity from the start. It opened in early 2017, as a partnership of Legacy Health, Kaiser Permanente, Oregon Health & Science University and Adventist Health. The 24/7 hospital and emergency room for psychiatric patients was the first of its kind in Oregon, designed to take the burden off local emergency rooms where patients in mental health crises ended up, sometimes boarding for weeks. 

Unity is run by Legacy and staffed by Legacy nurses and OHSU psychiatrists. Three nurses have filed suit against Unity, saying they were retaliated against for speaking up. Two cases were dismissed and a third is pending. 

The latest lawsuit, filed like the others in Multnomah County Circuit Court, said that Scoggin ended up working at Unity after his unit at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center was transferred to the new facility in Northeast Portland. He had to reapply for his job and was hired in February 2017, a month after Unity opened. Three months later, the lawsuit said, Scoggin filed a complaint with Oregon’s workplace safety administration over the violence and hazards he observed or experienced in the workplace. The problems didn’t go away, the lawsuit said. In January  2018, Scoggin complained again, filing at least four complaints with his supervisors or through an internal reporting system, the lawsuit said. Scoggin said in the complaints that he believed the center’s treatment model was at fault and that staff were not allowed to give dangerous patients enough medication to keep them under control.

The suit said Scoggin not only filed written complaints but also complained at safety meetings and talked to his supervisor, Chris Farnatinos, then vice president of the center. She resigned this past January.

Besides complaints of abuse and assaults, two patients died at Unity in the first two years, including one woman who sought help because she was suicidal. She killed herself at the center.

In March 2018, the state workplace safety agency issued a fine against Unity of  $1,650 for failing to curb the violence and cited the facility for failing to investigate workplace injuries and preventing staff and patients from being injured.

One month later, the lawsuit said Scoggin was given a “coaching” for exceeding his “scope of practice” for raising concerns about under-medication. 

 For Scoggin, this disciplinary action was a first, the lawsuit said: “In Scoggin’s 31 years of service preceding January 2017, he had never been subject to corrective action from defendants.” The lawsuit said that he had complained at other times in his career about under-medication but had never been disciplined.

In May 2018, the Oregon Health Authority completed a survey that found the facility at fault for regulatory violations involving patient rights and nursing services. The facility was given 90 days to improve or lose its license. 

The lawsuit said that managers shifted policies amid the revelations of abuse, neglect and death but that Scoggin remained concerned about under-medication and continued to voice his opinions. He was disciplined with “corrective actions” and his hours were reduced, the suit said.

The lawsuit seeks $700,000 in damages, saying that Scoggin suffered lost wages, lost job opportunities, fear, pain and emotional distress.

As for the nurses, their executive committee will survey staff about key concerns and try to get negotiations going now that the labor board has rejected Legacy’s appeal. A Legacy spokesman said the hospital system will not pursue a further appeal before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We will accept the (board’s) decision and move forward with bargaining with the ONA at Unity,” he said in a statement.  “We look forward to a professional bargaining process, and will keep you all informed as bargaining proceeds.”

Mittelman is pleased the process is moving forward though she does worry about her prominent role in the unionization push.

“I worry about retaliation from my employer,” Mittelman said. “I’m feeling my actions are being scrutinized and I feel that’s related to my involvement with ONA.”

 

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