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Legal News
Whistleblowing Psychiatrist Wins Huge Cash Award
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 10 page 16-47

A federal jury in Delaware has awarded a psychiatrist nearly $1 million in damages after agreeing with his contention that state mental health officials punished him for exercising his First Amendment rights.

David Springer, M.D., was head of the medical staff and director of residency training at Delaware Psychiatric Center, the state’s only public psychiatric hospital. In May 2000, the director of the state’s Division of Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health, Renata J. Henry, told Springer, who had been employed as an independent contractor since 1991, that she was not going to renew his contract for the next year and that he would have to bid for a job as though he were a new employee.

It was not clear whether he would even be applying for his job, since the form he was to fill out did not indicate a position or title. "It was a generic form for psychiatric-service provision," he told Psychiatric News. In addition, he noted, Henry had already offered the residency director position to someone else.

Until this point, his contract had been renewed automatically each year.

(In 1996, Delaware passed a law requiring all independent contractors who worked for the state and earned more than $50,000 a year to reapply for state jobs, but then grandfathered in all those who were employed at the time the law was signed.)

The order from Henry to reapply followed several revelations from Springer about serious problems at the hospital that were compromising patient safety. Prominent among these, he said, were "inadequate supervision of patients on suicide watches" that led to preventable suicide attempts, "extreme overcrowding," and "escapes from the hospital" by civilly committed patients.

He said that after he and others protested about the conditions to state officials, an "atmosphere of fear developed" at the hospital after staff were intimidated by threats from Henry’s department.

Springer sued Henry in her capacity as director of the mental health division, contending that he was terminated because he spoke out about his patient-safety concerns.

The jury agreed with Springer and awarded him $285,464 for lost earnings, $588,431 for lost future earnings, and $100,000 for injury to his reputation, according to his lawyers, Thomas and Stephen Neuberger. The jury also awarded $25,000 in punitive damages against Henry after deciding that she acted "recklessly, intentionally, or maliciously" toward the psychiatrist. In Delaware, when punitive damages are awarded, the defendant becomes liable for the entire amount of the award, so Henry, not the state, may have to pay the total of $998,895.

Since he left the state hospital, Springer has been medical director of St. John Vianney Center, a small psychiatric hospital in Downingtown, Pa., that treats nuns, priests, and monks. He also has a private practice.

Springer still wants his residency-director position back and is hoping that scheduled post-trial hearings will lead to this outcome. Another issue for these hearings is whether the court will award him attorneys’ fees as he has requested.

Springer said he has no indication that an appeal is imminent, adding that it’s unlikely that the defense will make that decision until the post-trial hearings are concluded.

"I hope this verdict and the suit itself will encourage other psychiatrists to speak out about important patient care and safety issues and not feel afraid," Springer said. ▪

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