A former state psychiatrist has filed a lawsuit accusing the Minnesota Department of Human Services and two officials of defaming his reputation and violating the state's data privacy law.
The lawsuit, filed in Ramsey County by psychiatrist Michael Harlow, claims the Department of Human Services, the department's deputy commissioner Anne Barry and former Minnesota Security Hospital administrator David Proffitt defamed Harlow by criticizing his handling of a violent incident involving a patient in statements to MPR News last year. It further alleges the defendants violated state law by disclosing information to MPR News about an active licensing investigation.
"They jumped the gun and made statements before an investigation was even completed," said Gregg Corwin, the attorney representing Harlow. "Why wouldn't you wait until the investigation was completed and a finding was made? ... I think they needed a convenient scapegoat because they were embarrassed."
Harlow attracted public attention when he was fired from his job as a psychiatrist at the Minnesota Security Hospital amid scrutiny of how he handled a violent patient. Proffitt fired Harlow a few weeks after a Nov. 15, 2011 incident in which a violent patient who had threatened to kill employees was restrained and locked in his room for several hours without a mattress. Harlow and other employees involved in the incident said they did nothing wrong and acted to prevent the patient from hurting himself and others.
Harlow's firing outraged other doctors at the state-run facility for people committed as mentally ill and dangerous. Most of the facility's psychiatrists left within weeks. Proffitt himself was later forced to resign in part because employees complained of threatening comments.
The incident that led to Harlow's departure was investigated by the Department of Human Services licensing division. The investigation, completed last June, found the patient suffered maltreatment. It blamed Harlow and the facility. Harlow challenged the finding, and a subsequent review by the licensing department found the evidence of Harlow's responsibility was "inconclusive." It found the facility alone was responsible.
Before the initial licensing investigation was completed, Barry and Proffitt spoke to MPR News about the incident and criticized Harlow's involvement. They also provided different explanations as to why Harlow was fired.
The lawsuit cites those statements and others published in stories by MPR News on Feb. 28 ("State facility for the mentally ill risks losing license over turmoil") and June 8, 2012 ("Investigation shows complexity of caring for the state's most violent and mentally ill adults") as evidence of defamation and violation of the state's data privacy law.
MPR News is not a party in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges Proffitt and Barry knowingly provided "false and defamatory statements with ill-will and spite and with the intent of causing injury" to Harlow.
The Feb. 28 story includes a statement from Proffitt that the patient involved in the incident "was maintained in a dehumanizing condition for hours." Proffitt said the decision to fire Harlow "had nothing to do with restraints or seclusion. Staff could have done more to prevent the situation from becoming violent."
The same story includes a statement from Barry, the deputy commissioner, that Harlow "was fired because he inappropriately used restraints and seclusion."
The lawsuit also cites a statement from Barry, published in the June 8 story, that the incident involved "human rights violations."
Harlow, who now works as a psychiatrist at Hennepin County Medical Center, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson defended the department in a brief statement to MPR News on Thursday. "Based on what we know today, we believe DHS acted appropriately," the statement said. "All patients in our care must be treated with dignity. This is not only their right, it is fundamental to creating the therapeutic environment needed for recovery."
Proffitt could not be reached for comment.