Court tosses defamation suit in psych hospital incident

The Minnesota Court of Appeals Monday tossed out a lawsuit from a former doctor at the St. Peter, Minn., psychiatric hospital who argued that an MPR News investigation on the treatment of patients there was based on state data that should’ve been private.

Michael Harlow’s firing followed a November 2011 incident in which a patient at the psychiatric hospital was placed in restraints and stripped naked.

After Harlow was fired in December 2011, MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran, citing several sources, reported that the hospital was in turmoil and that officials didn’t give the staff any direction on how the incident should have been handled.

“He was maintained in a dehumanizing condition for hours without clothing, without [a] blanket, without a mattress, without a pillow, even though it was documented he was trying to sleep on the slab and was calm and quiet,” then hospital boss David Proffitt told Baran in her February 2012 story. “Those are things that are not common for this facility. They’re not acceptable for this facility.”

In a report several months later, Baran reported that an investigation by the Department of Human Services “found the facility and Dr. Harlow violated licensing standards, but that the violations were not serious or recurring.”

Harlow sued the DHS, David Proffitt and DHS deputy commissioner Ann Barry for defamation, and said Minnesota data practices laws prevented the details of his firing from being released.

The Court of Appeals, however, ruled today (pdf) that the data given Baran about Harlow’s firing was public data at the time of the release, even though a separate investigation was underway.

“Proffitt’s statement that Harlow’s firing ‘had nothing to do with restraints or seclusion’ was a statement of his opinion. The MGDPA applies only to recorded data, not ‘mental impressions formed by public employees,’” the court said today.

It said there was no indication Commissioner Barry was leaking data from an ongoing DHS investigation at the time she was interviewed by the MPR reporter.

Court of Appeals Judge Michael Kirk also said the two officials are immune from the defamation suit because their statements were made as part of their assigned duties for the state.

Barry stated in her deposition that Baran contacted DHS’s communications office before her February 2012 report for MPR and that Barry was “assigned the interview” by the DHS communications director because “[it] would have been either [her] or the commissioner who did the interview, and [she] was in a better position to do the interview.”

Proffitt similarly stated that he was told to participate in the MPR interview because it was part of his job. And Proffitt’s former supervisor stated in an affidavit that “[c]orresponding with staff in response to press coverage of the facility was one of Proffitt’s job-related functions” as hospital administrator.

Kirk said the public had an interest in the details of Harlow’s firing.

“The public had a strong interest in learning about the hospital’s administration, patient care, and use of public funds,” he wrote in today’s opinion. “The information about Harlow’s firing thus provided important information about hospital operations to the public.”

Proffitt resigned under fire in March 2012.