Three women, two of whom are from Santa Barbara County, are suing the Aurora Vista del Mar Psychiatric Hospital in Ventura and its holding company, Signature Healthcare Services, for multimillion-dollar payouts after being sexually abused by the hospital’s then mental-health worker Juan Valencia. Valencia pleaded guilty in 2015 to having sex with one of the patients and pleaded guilty in 2016 to two felonies involving the other two patients: rape of an incompetent person and penetration by a foreign object. He is now serving a six-year sentence.
David Feldman, the lawyer representing the three plaintiffs, said in his opening statement on June 19 at the Ventura County Courthouse that the hospital and Signature Healthcare Services are to blame because of chronic staff shortages, poor staff training, poor supervision of Valencia, and failure to do a thorough enough employee background check. “They didn’t keep them safe, therefore [Aurora Vista del Mar and Signature Healthcare Services] are responsible for the harm caused to them,” he told the jury.
Aurora Vista del Mar’s lawyer, Tom Beach, said in his opening statement that the hospital had a “zero-tolerance rule about fraternizing with patients.” He argued Aurora cannot be held responsible for an employee who chose to break the rules because he kept it secret from the hospital; it therefore fell outside the scope of his employment. “The fact that Juan Valencia accepted responsibility for his misconduct does not mean the hospital did anything wrong,” Beach said in court. “He would say to [the plaintiffs], ‘Don’t tell anybody. You know I could lose my job over this.’”
Although Valencia had a prior statutory rape conviction in 2000, Beach said the hospital cannot be held liable for hiring Valencia because his conviction was expunged and didn’t appear in the hospital’s background check. Valencia was 18 at the time and impregnated his then-14-year-old girlfriend. Beach said part of the reason it was expunged was that Valencia “lived with his girlfriend and helped raise their child for a period of time.”
Feldman said Valencia was known as “Rapey Juan” by his coworkers in the hospital, though, which he argued as proof that the hospital could still be held accountable for hiring someone with a history of sexual misconduct despite the deletion of the statutory rape conviction from his record. Valencia worked at the facility from February 2010 to November 2013, when the three plaintiffs were admitted. Feldman said staff acknowledged Valencia was flirtatious with patients.
Before the 2017 Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness sent more than 500 of its patients to Vista del Mar annually, its Chief Quality Care and Strategy Officer Suzanne Grimmesey said. She said the department sent 750 patients in the fiscal 2014-2015 year, and 631 and 656 in the next two years, respectively. After the Thomas Fire burned part of Vista del Mar, the department sent only child-aged Santa Barbara patients to the Ventura psychiatric hospital, a total of 220 this past fiscal year. Because Santa Barbara County’s crisis stabilization unit and two crisis centers were completed around the time of the fire, Grimmesey said many of the adult patients are sent there instead, reducing overall psychiatric hospitalization.
Cottage Hospital’s psychiatric facility provides care only to Santa Barbara patients who check in voluntarily, are over the age of 18, and have private insurance. Patients not fitting the mold are often sent to Vista del Mar, but the exact number couldn’t be provided by the hospital’s public relations manager Maria Zate by the time of publication.
Beach’s main argument was that the women’s relationships with Valencia were consensual. “The evidence will show you that the plaintiffs agreed to and consented to the contact and the relationships with Juan Valencia. … There’s no evidence of force. No evidence of violence. No evidence of intimidation,” Beach said. All three of the women were diagnosed with psychosis and bipolar personality disorder, though, which Feldman asserted made them unable to give consent. “When [one of the plaintiffs] came to the hospital, she was at her most vulnerable,” Feldman said. “He abused her and betrayed her trust.”
In a transcribed 2014 interview between former Ventura Police Detective Nicholas Edwards and one of the three plaintiffs, the plaintiff said that although she willingly engaged in a sexual relationship with Valencia, she was in a delusional mental state and believed he was “of a higher power.” At times she said she believed he was a manifestation of her boyfriend coming to visit her through Valencia’s body. She cited the first time Valencia crossed a line as when he came into the hospital bathroom she was showering in and commented on her breasts, asking her if “they were real.” She was at the facility on a 5150, a state-mandated psychiatric hold. It was one of three times she was admitted and under Valencia’s care.
The ongoing trial will focus also on whether Signature Healthcare Services will be held responsible. Mindee Stekkinger, a partner in Beach’s firm and representing Signature, claims it can’t be held liable because it does not provide patient care and only serves as a management organization.
The trial is expected to continue through August.