MERCED — A Merced County mental health worker is suing the Merced Police Department, claiming she was physically assaulted by an officer during a dispute last year, according to the complaint filed late last week.
An attorney for the Police Department on Tuesday said the plaintiff, Fresno resident Nancy June Novak, lunged first at the police officer, with an intent to strike him.
Two officers and a sergeant are named in the lawsuit.
Novak, 50, is seeking undisclosed monetary damages. The altercation is suspected to have happened after Novak, a psychiatric staff nurse at the Marie Green Psychiatric Center, denied entry to a patient into the facility on Sept. 1, 2012.
According to the civil lawsuit filed on Friday, Merced police officer Ryan Rasmussen and two employees from Merced-based Loyd's Liberty Home tried to admit a patient to Marie Green for a 72-hour psychiatric hold.
The patient was being physically restrained and suffering epileptic seizures, the lawsuit said.
Novak, who was one of the psychiatric center's admitting nurses, denied the patient entry into the facility because his behavior was caused by a medical illness, not a mental one. According to the suit, the subject was having epileptic seizures and "other physical problems."
The center's medical director agreed with Novak's decision, saying the patient should be taken to a hospital because the center is unable to manage physical problems.
The lawsuit claims officer Rasmussen became "belligerent and confrontational" during the dispute, telling Novak to "back up" before grabbing her and throwing her on the trunk of his patrol car face down.
Rasmussen is accused of pushing Novak to her knees and forced her "face and head into the asphalt," causing her to break her glasses and temporarily lose consciousness. Novak was placed in handcuffs, according to the lawsuit, and put inside a police car.
Novak claims she asked Rasmussen if she was being arrested, but he did not answer.
Police Sgt. Jay Struble and officer Eduardo Chavez arrived a short while later, according to the lawsuit, which claims Chavez told Novak she would be cited for "resisting an officer" and told her to sign the citation or she'd be taken to jail.
Struble took pictures of Novak's injuries, but allegedly refused to give her copies of the photos.
Dale Allen, the San Francisco attorney representing the city of Merced, said Novak interfered with the officer's attempt to admit a patient and then physically lunged at him without warning.
"In the presence of two witnesses, she lunged at officer Rasmussen in an effort to strike," Allen said. "Officer Rasmussen then restrained her. In an effort to restrain her, she fell to the ground.
"It's our position that he acted appropriately at all times when he handled the situation," Allen added.
The lawsuit names the two employees of Loyd's Liberty Home, Christina Trigg and Joella Brewer, for failing to provide written documentation that's required to admit a patient into the psychiatric clinic.
Timothy Magill, Novak's Fresno-based attorney, said his client acted appropriately to deny the patient since Marie Green is equipped to handle mental issues, not physical ones.
"It would be illegal for them to admit someone like that. They could open themselves up to discipline from the state," Magill said. "That's why Nancy initially said 'I can't admit him, it would violate the law,' and they continued to argue with her."
Novak, who denied lunging at the officer, returned to work at the county on June 20, but said the incident last year "changed her life forever."
"I wish that this never happened, and that's all I can say," Novak said on Tuesday. "Certainly, I think the mental damage was way worse than the physical damage. I grew up respecting officers and this has certainly altered my perception of good and bad."
Novak said she doesn't work directly with patients anymore, but said she's grateful to have her job.
"I've returned to a different job for the county, and I'm very grateful that they gave me an opportunity to do something else until hopefully I can return to direct patient care," Novak said.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.