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Herring v. Central State Hospital

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

July 29, 2015



JOHN A. GIBNEY, Jr., District Judge.

Antonya O. Herring, an African American woman, worked as a nurse at Central State Hospital ("CSH"), a psychiatric hospital owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia. In October 2012, a patient attacked Herring while she was on duty. She believes CSH and her supervisors put her in that situation as a result of race-based staffing decisions. She filed this law suit and named as defendants CSH and three of its employees in their official and individual capacities: Vicki Montgomery, the Director of CSH; Dr. S. Yarathra, Chief Psychiatrist of CSH's Forensic Unit; and Bernadette Spruill, the Head Supervisor in the Forensic Unit.

The complaint lists three counts and seeks both money damages and an injunction to stop racial staffing decisions. Count I alleges a denial of Herring's right to equal protection. Count II alleges race discrimination.[1] Count III says the defendants violated Herring's right to have security present during the meeting with the violent patient and her right to immediately leave work to obtain medical attention.

The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They assert Eleventh Amendment immunity from the claims against CSH and the official-capacity defendants. The individual defendants also claim qualified immunity from suit. Finally, they contend that Herring's complaint fails to state a claim.

The Court finds that Eleventh Amendment immunity shields CSH and the employees in their official capacity against all claims, except for claims for injunctive relief against Montgomery under Count I. Likewise, qualified immunity protects the individual defendants from suit under Count III, which alleges substantive due process violations; it does not, however, protect them under Count I, which alleges racial discrimination. As to the sufficiency of the complaint, the Court finds that Herring fails to state a claim for relief for racial discrimination against Yarathra and Spruill under Count I. Only Count I as alleged against Montgomery in her official and individual capacities survives the motion to dismiss.


The complaint alleges the following facts:

Herring worked as a nurse in CSH's maximum security unit, Unit 8. Director of Nursing Eva Parham, with the direction and approval of CSH Director Vicki Montgomery, regularly assigned African Americans to this dangerous post.[3] While Herring worked at CSH, the entire staff of Unit 8 consisted of African Americans except for one white male. Opportunities to transfer from Unit 8 virtually did not exist, and CSH assigned white female nurses with less seniority to safer units.

On October 30, 2012, Dr. S. Yarathra, Chief Psychiatrist of CSH's Forensic Unit, led a team meeting to tell a psychiatric patient with a history of violent behavior that he could not leave the maximum security unit. Despite knowing that the patient might react violently, Yarathra did not arrange for additional security in the room or Unit 8. During the meeting, Herring sat next to the patient, with other African American staff close by. The non-African American staff sat "well away" from him. As predicted, the patient responded violently to Yarathra's news. The patient lashed out at Herring and punched her several times in the head. Security soon arrived and restrained him.

After the assault, Herring asked permission to leave work to seek medical attention, but her supervisor, Bernadette Spruill, refused to allow her to leave because no nurse was present to relieve Herring. Spruill required Herring to perform her normal duties for four hours while she experienced pain and spit up blood and hard particles.[4] After she was relieved from her duties, Herring went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with contusions on her head, face, and right shoulder.


1. No Claim Under 42 U.S.C. § 1981

Herring brings claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 against the defendants. Section 1983, however, "provides the exclusive federal damages remedy for the violation of the rights guaranteed by § 1981 when the claim is pressed against a state actor." Jett v. Dall. Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 735 (1989). Even though Congress amended § 1981(c) after the Supreme Court's decision in Jett, the holding from Jett remains good law, and § 1981(c) does not create a new remedy for the rights that it protects. Dennis v. Cnty. of Fairfax, 55 F.3d 151, 156, n.1 (4th Cir. 1995).[5] The Court will therefore dismiss Herring's claims under § 1981.

2. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

The Eleventh Amendment provides that states cannot generally be sued in federal court.[6] Lee-Thomas v. Prince George's Cnty. Pub. Sch., 666 F.3d 244, 248 (4th Cir. 2012). Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to state officials sued in their official capacity, because "a suit against [an] official's office... is no different from a suit against the State itself." Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 401 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) (citations omitted).

A claim against a State or its agent may overcome the Eleventh Amendment bar in three ways. First, a State may waive its immunity. Va. Office for Prot. & Advocacy v. Stewart, 131 S.Ct. 1632, 1638 (2011). Second, Congress may abrogate a State's immunity through appropriate legislation. Id. Third, a plaintiff may seek prospective, injunctive relief against state officials for ongoing violations of federal law under the exception established by Ex parte Young, ...

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