Menu Close

The owners of Sonoma County’s only psychiatric hospital, Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, have agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle a lawsuit that alleges a number of state labor code violations, including significant understaffing that led to unsafe working conditions for nurses and other staff.

In 2018, the former director of nursing Teresa Brooke filed a lawsuit – Brooke v. Aurora Behavioral Healthcare-Santa Rosa, LLC et al. – alleging that understaffing and related issues caused pervasive Cal-OSHA violations at a Santa Rosa behavioral healthcare hospital operated by Signature Healthcare Services, LLC, one of the largest privately-held behavioral health hospital conglomerates in the U.S.

Using PAGA, the plaintiff sought to recover Labor Code penalties on behalf of the State of California for unlawful working conditions experienced by nurses and other hospital staff.

On August 25, the Superior Court of California approved a settlement including a Gross Settlement Fund of $2,850,000 – with $2,046,750 being paid to the State of California and $682,250 being paid to hospital staff, based on formulas mandated by the PAGA statute.

The court-approved settlement also includes various additional programmatic measures agreed to by the parties, including notice to employees that they will not face repercussions for speaking up regarding unsafe or unlawful practices.

The settlement further provides for the parties to jointly retain an outside expert to evaluate the hospital’s policies, practices, and procedures and make recommendations for any changes it may deem needed to improve working conditions for front-line staff who care for acute patients.

“This is the first of its kind, a significant PAGA settlement centering on occupational health and safety in a hospital,” said Xinying Valerian, one of Plaintiff’s lead attorneys and principal of Valerian Law. “The settlement is heavily focused on the employee population who have been most impacted – nurses and mental health workers, and we have not seen any other case of this kind. There’s still work to be done, but we’ve accomplished something through a civil penalties PAGA case that has not happened before.”

“In approving the settlement, the Court recognized that the settlement provides genuine and meaningful relief that will benefit the Santa Rosa hospital employees as well as the public,” according to Andrew Melzer, co-lead counsel and partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP. “This case reinforces that we can and should be pursuing Labor Code and whistleblower actions aimed at deterring violations and improving conditions for hospital workers.”

Qiaojing Ella Zheng, a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp’s San Francisco Office, added, “the resolution of this matter not only presents the employees in the Santa Rosa facility with an outstanding result, but also sets an example of how psychiatric hospitals all over the state should protect the health and safety of these frontline healthcare workers.”

Valerian and Melzer said staffing ratios of registered nurses to patients at the the hospital, at times 19 patients to one registered nurse and another licensed staff member, created unsafe working environment for nurses and other staff.

According to the law firms, other employment rights cases remain pending against Signature Healthcare.

Further information about the PAGA settlement will be made available to the 1,000 or so employees later in September.