CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Unless the state Department of Health and Human Resources rapidly grants pay raises to staffers caring for the mentally ill, the state's largest agency faces thousands of dollars a day in contempt of court fines.
The DHHR has repeatedly failed to comply with a 2009 court order meant to help state-run psychiatric hospitals hire and keep quality staff.
Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom told the department three years ago to give $500,000 in raises to key employees at the state-run hospitals. The department gave some raises but has yet to fully obey the order.
The fed-up judge ordered DHHR this month to cut the bigger paychecks by Jan. 31 - or else.
If the department continues to fail, Bloom said he would hold the department in contempt of court and fine the department $50 per employee per day.
Bloom's contempt threat is a dramatic first in the so-called Hartley Case, a 1981 case that remains open and centers on the treatment of the mentally ill.
Bloom's threat covers hundreds of state hospital employees - between 280 and 400, according to differing sources. That means fines of up to $20,000 a day for DHHR. By March, DHHR could owe $1 million in court fines.
On Dec. 14, the same day DHHR was in court fighting efforts to improve conditions inside its mental health facilities, a shooter walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 children and six adults. The mass shooting sparked political talk about improving the nation's treatment of the mentally ill.
Currently, William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston and Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington are shorthanded and rely on staffers to work long hours, according to court testimony and records.
Bateman alone pays more than $1 million a year in overtime.
One Sharpe employee testified in an October hearing that overworked employees at Sharpe "get a short fuse."
In summer 2009, Bloom told the state to give raises of $1,000 or $2,000 to about 280 hospital employees. (Participants in this month's hearing said the number of employees might be about 400 now.)
On Oct. 17, Bloom ruled DHHR must comply with his 2009 order by Jan. 1, 2013.
But instead of working to make the raises happen after three years of delay, DHHR sought to again delay the pay raises, citing logistical issues.
DHHR is on one side of the lawsuit. Charleston-based public interest law firm Mountain State Justice is on the other side.
DHHR's legal tactics led lawyers on the other side of the case to accuse the department of intentionally dilly-dallying to buy time to prepare legal filings designed to thwart Bloom's October ruling.
Here's how it went down, according to an order Bloom entered on Dec. 18:
On Oct. 17, Bloom told DHHR attorney Wendy Elswick to draft a document outlining his bench ruling from that day that the department must raise salaries by Jan. 1.
DHHR took six weeks to do that. On Nov. 28, the department circulated a two-page document on the ruling.
Nine days later, on Dec. 7, DHHR asked Bloom to reconsider the ruling - even though the two-page order had yet to be filed.
Four days later, on Dec. 11, the two-page order was officially filed. The same day, DHHR's Elswick filed a separate court document asking Bloom to halt enforcement of the very two-page order she had just written.