Federal Judge Orders Mediation in Greystone Psychiatric Lawsuit

Lilo H. Stainton | July 23, 2019 | Health Care
Plaintiffs allege conditions at Morris County hospital are dangerous for staffers and patients alike

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital
A federal judge has ordered New Jersey officials to enter mediation with attorneys for patients and staff at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital who claim in a lawsuit that conditions there are dangerous and potentially deadly.

In issuing her order Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas, put on hold a bid for an injunction that would have forced the state to make immediate changes at the Morris County facility. Instead, Salas, sitting in Newark, called on the parties to meet with former Judge Barbara Byrd Wecker, a certified court mediator, in an effort to work out their differences within the next three months.

The decision came after a flurry of correspondence last week between attorneys for both sides and the court, which led Salas to set up a potential schedule for pre-trial investigations and interviews that stretched into 2020. But by the end of the week, the judge concluded that mediation made more sense.

It appears that “mediation of these civil actions would conserve resources and be in the best interests of the Court and the parties,” she wrote.

If a settlement is not reached, the case could still eventually proceed in court before Salas.

Lawsuit: ‘More of a zoo than a hospital’

Salas’ decision is the latest development in a case filed in December by the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender on behalf of 11 current and former Greystone patients that alleged they and other residents risked imminent death or injury as a result of the state’s poor oversight and mismanagement at the hospital. The suit names as defendants Gov. Phil Murphy, former Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, Greystone CEO Tomika Carter, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, and other state and hospital officials.

The filing was later updated to include affidavits from a number of doctors and other staff members at Greystone, which described the facility as “more of a zoo than a hospital,” where patients are treated “like animals.” The public defenders called for the court to force the state to take immediate action to upgrade treatment capacity, expand training, and improve physical safety at the site; it also called for an independent monitor to be appointed to oversee these changes.

In mid-June, Salas ordered the state to appear in Newark on July 19 to address the Greystone charges. The facility, one of four psychiatric hospitals run by the state — a system that the DOH has sought to overhaul in the past year — houses more than 350 individuals with serious mental illness and behaviors that are deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

But the Attorney General’s Office said the claims failed to connect the state’s actions to harm impacting any actual named plaintiffs and said the public defender’s office did not give them a clear road map for resolving the problems they allege. In addition, state attorneys said the lawsuit failed to meet the extraordinarily high standard courts require in granting a preliminary injunction.

“To be clear, the State remains strongly committed to providing the best medical care possible to the patients at Greystone and at all State psychiatric hospitals. But this Complaint fails to state any viable claim, and it should be dismissed,” the state’s attorneys added in additional filings submitted last week.

Both the health department and OAG declined to comment Monday, noting that they do not discuss pending litigation in the press. Representatives at the public defender’s office could not be reached for a response Monday.

Reforms underway

The lawsuit also prompted questions about the impact of the state’s reforms to the psychiatric hospital system, which cares for some 1,200 residential patients in conditions that have long been criticized for being overcrowded and violent, with limited capacity for effective treatment.

The state hired a consultant to assess the system in late 2017 and used its report as the basis for an 18-month blueprint for change, unveiled last summer. After nine months, the DOH said a number of positive changes were underway, with more psychiatrists and advance practice nurses hired, lower patient counts, and fewer violent incidents reported.

But the public defender’s office has insisted the violence reported doesn’t reflect the full scope of incidents that take place, that physical dangers remain at Greystone, and that more clinicians are needed in order to provide patients proper care.

“The Declarations provided to the Court by Plaintiffs establish the severity of the existent conditions at Greystone. To refer to today’s Greystone as a ‘zoo’ is not hyperbole. Absent the relief sought, Plaintiffs and all patients will continue to live in constant exposure to imminent physical injury or worse,” the public defenders wrote in papers submitted last week.