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7th Circuit affirms ruling against former jail nurses

June 9, 2011

In a discrimination and hostile work environment case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded for the first time that displays of confederate flags in the workplace may support a hostile work environment claim. However, the judges agreed with the District Court that several African-American nurses formerly employed by a Marion County jail could not support their legal claims.  

In Harriett Ellis, et al. v. CCA of Tennessee LLC d/b/a Corrections Corporation of America, No. 10-2768, former nurses of Marion County Jail II, privately run by CCA of Tennessee, filed a suit against the company claiming racial discrimination, hostile work environment, and that CCA of Tennessee constructively terminated their employment for complaining about problems at the jail in violation of the state whistleblower law.

The nurses’ examples of racial discrimination and hostile work environment were changing shift assignments so that everyone worked a different shift every month, a book found in an administrator’s office referencing monkeys in the work place as in “there is a monkey on my back,” the wearing of a confederate flag t-shirt by two different employees, and a doctor referring to an inmate whose last name was Cole as having the first name as either “black as” or “black ass.” The nurses later quit their jobs and filed this suit.

The District Court granted summary judgment for CCA of Tennessee, finding the plaintiffs didn’t create jury-triable issues on their claims of federal employment discrimination and state-law retaliatory discharge, as well as that one plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by res judicata.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that there were no genuine issues of material fact relating to the nurses’ legal claims. The judges did note that the 7th Circuit had never addressed the matter of whether displays of confederate flags in the workplace may support a hostile work environment claim. They agreed with other courts that those displays may support that claim. But in this case, the plaintiffs’ limited number or claims are insufficiently severe to support a hostile work environment claim, wrote Judge Joel Flaum.

Also, summary judgment was appropriate on their whistleblower claims because they pointed out no violation of a state law or rule, or anything else within the whistleblower act’s ambit.

The judges did find that the District Court erred in concluding that one plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by claim preclusion. Plaintiff Patricia Forrest had filed an earlier unsuccessful federal lawsuit, and the District judge believed Forrest could have amended her complaint in the earlier suit to allege conduct that occurred between the time when she filed the suit and the time when CCA of Tennessee moved for summary judgment. That conclusion didn’t accurately reflect caselaw, wrote Judge Flaum, but the error was a harmless error. The plaintiffs didn’t argue that her claims differed on the merits from the rest of the plaintiffs’ claims.
 

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