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Patient’s or Customer’s Preferences May Not Be A Defense to Discrimination Claims

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July 28, 2010

By: Bill Pokorny 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that a nursing home maintained a racially hostile working environment by accommodating its residents’ requests to be treated by white-only personnel and by terminating the plaintiff, a black nursing assistant, for an alleged workplace infraction. Chaney v. Plainfield Health Center

Brenda Chaney worked for Plainfield Health Center (Plainfield) as a certified nursing assistant. Among Plainfield’s residents was an individual who did not want assistance from black CNAs. Plainfield detailed employees’ duties on an assignment sheet that Chaney and other employees received each day when they arrived at work. The sheet included a column with miscellaneous notes about each resident’s condition. In the case of one resident, the sheet instructed staff members that the resident “Prefers No Black CNAs.” Chaney also presented evidence of racially tinged comments and epithets from co-workers. While these ceased after Cheney complained, a co-worker continued to remind Chaney that certain residents were off limits because she was black. Just three months after she was hired, Plainfield terminated Chaney’s employment.

Chaney filed a charge with the EEOC, and subsequently filed suit in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. The district court concluded that the note on the plaintiff’s daily assignment sheet advising her of the “Prefers No Black CNAs” was reasonable given the facility’s good-faith belief that ignoring a resident’s preferences would violate Indiana’s patient-rights laws, and found that Chaney failed to refute Plainfield’s stated reasons for terminating her employment. Chaney appealed.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision. It rejected Plainfield’s argument that its policy of honoring its residents’ racial preferences was akin to honoring a patient’s preference for same-sex health providers, which courts have found permissible. The Court also rejected Plainfield’s argument that because it is both a medical provider and permanent home for residents, the rights of residents must be honored before considering its Title VII obligations to employees, holding that Title VII does not allow an employer to discriminate based upon race in order to accommodate the racial biases of its customers. Further, the Court rejected Plainfield’s claim that its policy protected black employees from residents’ racial harassment, stating that the facility had several other options available to it to address its patient’s racial preferences, such as warning residents before admitting them of the facility’s nondiscrimination policy or assigning staff based on race-neutral criteria that minimized the risk of conflict. Finally, the Court found that Chaney had presented sufficient evidence that Plainfield’s grounds for firing her were insincere, and that her termination was racially motivated.

The issue confronted in this case remains a common one, particularly for employers in the health care sector, where employees must have direct and often very intimate contact with members of the public. While it can be difficult to balance the rights and preferences of patients and residents with those of employees, this case makes it clear that when a patient’s racial preference conflicts with Title VII, the employer’s obligation to provide a discrimination-free workplace under Title VII takes precedence.

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