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No summary judgment for health-care facility with racial-preference policy

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The District Court erred in granting summary judgment to a long-term health-care facility which prevented black workers from assisting certain residents based on the residents’ requests, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today.

Brenda Chaney v. Plainfield Healthcare Center, No.09- 3661, pits a health-care worker’s right to a non-discriminatory workplace against a patient’s demands for white-only health-care providers. Plainfield had a policy of honoring the racial preferences of its residents in assigning health-care providers. Brenda Chaney, a nurse aide who is black, was instructed in her daily assignment sheet to not provide care for Marjorie Latshaw, who preferred to not have black nursing assistants. Chaney went along with the policy, even having to not assist Latshaw once when she found her on the floor.

In the three months she worked at the facility, Chaney claimed she was subject to racially tinged comments and epithets from co-workers. Chaney was fired by the director of nursing when a nurse accused her of using profanity when lifting a resident onto her bedside commode.

Chaney filed suit claiming hostile workplace and discriminatory discharge. The District Court granted summary judgment because it concluded Plainfield avoided liability by responding promptly each time it received a complaint, and that the note on the daily assignment sheet was reasonable given Plainfield’s good-faith belief that ignoring a resident’s preferences would violate Indiana’s patient-rights laws. It also found Chaney didn’t produce evidence to show she was fired because of her race.

The 7th Circuit had no trouble finding that a reasonable person would find Plainfield’s work environment hostile or abusive. The facility acted to foster and engender a racially charged environment through its assignment sheet that reminded Chaney and her black co-workers that certain residents didn’t want blacks working with them, wrote Judge Ann Claire Williams.

“Unlike white aides, Chaney was restricted in the rooms she could enter, the care that she could provide, and the patients she could assist,” she wrote.

In addition, a company’s desire to cater to racial preferences of its customers is not a defense under Title VII for treating employees different based on race. The judges disagreed with Plainfield’s argument that since it’s both a medical provider and permanent home for residents, the rights of residents must be honored before considering its Title VII obligations to employees. Plainfield’s policy is not a reasonable and good-faith effort to comply with Indiana law, which conflicts with federal law.

“Had a resident sued Plainfield under the patient’s rights provision, Title VII would have supplied an affirmative defense,” she wrote. “Title VII does not, by contrast, contain a good-faith ‘defense’ that allows an employer to ignore the statute in favor of conflicting state law.”

The Indiana law also doesn’t require Plainfield to instruct its employees to accede to the racial preferences of its residents, and the facility’s interpretation of the law puts Plainfield at risk of violating duties of medical care that it owes its residents.

The Circuit judges also found a reasonable jury could conclude that Plainfield’s grounds for firing Chaney cloaked the “forbidden motivation of race.” When she was fired, the facility said it was because she swore; later it contended it was because Chaney failed to respond to a bed alarm. But in the incident for which she was fired, another nurse who was supposed to respond chose not to answer the patient’s bed alarm. Instead Chaney responded, despite the patient not being in her unit. That nurse wasn’t fired or punished for the event.

The case is remanded for further proceedings.
 

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