Psychiatric hospital faces lawsuit alleging racial and job discrimination

By Jon Campisi | Aug 11, 2011

A suburban Philadelphia psychiatric hospital is facing a federal job discrimination lawsuit, with a former employee alleging she regularly encountered a hostile work environment as well as racially divisive treatment on the part of company officials.

Attorney Adrian J. Moody, of the firm Moody & Shields Group, P.C., filed the federal complaint Aug. 10 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of Philadelphia resident Edith Griffin Ellison.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are Fort Washington, Pa.-based BHC Northwest Psychiatric Hospital and a handful of hospital administrators. The latter includes the company’s CEO, Mark Shore; Human Resources Director Dawn Kownacki; Adolescent Services Director Mary Ellen Green; Director of Nursing Kim Hoffman; and nurse supervisor Chris Kauhn.

According to the complaint, Ellison began working for Brook Glen Behavioral Health Hospital, as the company was then known, in May 2008. After she completed a probationary period, Ellison was assigned to a hospital unit overseen by defendant Kauhn, who allegedly had the reputation of being hostile toward black nurses.

The lawsuit states that Kauhn denied Ellison, on more than one occasion, the opportunity to shift to a “charge nurse,” which carries a higher salary than that of a “non-charge nurse.”

Ellison complained to her supervisor about what she felt was unfair treatment, since white nurses were apparently given the rotation, but she was told to talk to a higher-up. She then complained to defendant Green, but was ignored.

After the complaints were lodged, Ellison claims she was mistreated by Kauhn, with the defendant often screaming at her and bullying her for no apparent reason, the lawsuit states.

“At no point did Defendant Kauhn treat the Plaintiff with civility, but continuously bullied and tried to intimidate her, and generally treated her contemptuously and with great hostility,” the lawsuit reads.

During one encounter, Ellison even claims to have heard Kauhn mumble a racial slur under his breath, the comment allegedly directed toward the plaintiff.

“Similarly situated white nurses were not treated with such hostility, anger or contempt, and were not so bulled and intimidated,” the lawsuit states.

“Plaintiff Ellison was treated with such hostility, anger and contempt because she was black and in further retaliation for her having complained about being treated differently from similarly situated white nurses.”

In January 2010, Ellison took her complaints to her union representative, who in turn took the plaintiff’s complaints to hospital administrators. At that point, Kauhn was transferred out of the unit, but Ellison’s requests to rotate to a “charge nurse” position were still ignored, the lawsuit states.

In February 2010, Ellison filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging unfair job treatment because of race.

After the EEOC filing, Ellison continued to experience unfair treatment at work, the suit alleges. Rumors were spread about Ellison and other nurses were encouraged to harass her.

In April 2010, Ellison took medical leave, returning in late May. She soon met with hospital administrators with the belief her complaints would finally be addressed, the lawsuit states. Instead, Ellison was abruptly fired for supposedly violating patient confidentiality.

“The claim that the Plaintiff had violated patient confidentiality was not true, but was entirely pretextual, and leveled in retaliation for the Plaintiff’s having filed a charge of discrimination in February 2010,” the lawsuit states.

On June 1, 2010, Ellison was rehired, but claims she returned to a hostile work environment. On June 4, management accused her of being an unsafe nurse and again terminated her employment.

On June 24, 2010, Ellison filed a second discrimination charge with the EEOC.

The lawsuit claims that Ellison’s civil rights were violated. For each of the six counts listed in the lawsuit, Ellison seeks judgment in an amount in excess of $150,000, plus attorney’s fees. She has demanded a jury trial.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-05106-MMB.

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