The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a nursing home’s policy of complying with patients’ wishes to be treated only by white health care workers can form the basis of a racially hostile work environment for non-white employees. Chaney v. Plainfield, 7th Cir., No. 09-3661, 7/20/10.

Brenda Chaney was employed as certified nursing assistant (CAN) by Plainfield Healthcare Center, a nursing home that housed a resident who did not want assistance from black CNAs. Plainfield complied with the resident’s wishes by distributing, on a daily basis, a written schedule for all employees that included a reference that “no black” assistants should enter the resident’s room or provide any care to her. Plainfield admits that the directive “banned” Chaney from providing care to that resident.

In addition to working under this ban, Chaney was subject to racially insensitive and unprofessional remarks from her co-workers, including one comment questioning why Plainfield “keep[s] on hiring” blacks, and adding a particularly unpleasant racial epithet. After Chaney complained about these comments, the epithets stopped, but the racial preference policy remained in place. Instead of epithets, Chaney began to get constant reminders about the policy from her co-workers, mentioning that certain patients were off limits because of her race.

After three months of employment, Chaney was fired after a nurse complained that Chaney used profanity in front of a patient. The complaint was that as Chaney was lifting the patient onto a bedside commode, she (Chaney) supposedly said “she’s shitting.” The complaint was investigated by the unit supervisor, who was skeptical of the allegation, having never before heard Chaney use any profanity. Further, the supervisor found that neither the resident’s roommate nor Chaney’s co-worker heard the alleged profanity. Although the supervisor relayed her findings and her skepticism to the Director of Nursing, Chaney was fired on the same day that the complaint was made.

Chaney ultimately filed suit, alleging racially hostile environment and discriminatory discharge. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Plainfield on Chaney’s claims, finding that Plainfield had responded promptly to Chaney’s complaints of her co-workers remarks. The lower court treated the racial preference policy as a separate hostile environment claim, concluding that Plainfield had a good faith belief that ignoring the patient’s wishes would have violated the state’s patient-rights laws. Finally, that court found that Chaney failed to prove that her termination was motivated by race.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision on all issues. It pointed out that in order to impose liability for a racially hostile work environment, a minority plaintiff must show that the work environment was both objectively and subjectively hostile, and that the conduct was severe and pervasive. The Court stated that it had “no trouble in finding that a reasonable person would find Plainfield’s work environment hostile or abusive.” It pointed out that no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet. The Court added that even after the most vulgar of the epithets stopped, Plainfield’s assignment sheet to all workers clearly – and on a daily basis – reminded Chaney and her co-workers that Chaney was restricted in the performance of her job because of her race. Further, the Court found that the circumstances of Chaney’s termination created factual issues that should be decided by a jury.

Courts have widely held that a company’s desire to cater to the perceived racial preferences of its customers is not a defense to a claim of racial discrimination under Title VII. However, Plainfield argued that as a health-care provider, it should be exempted from that prohibition. As support, Plainfield pointed to cases permitting sex discrimination in the health-care setting. In response, the Court pointed out that while gender may be a bona fide occupational qualification for accommodating a patient’s privacy interest, there is no such privacy interest associated with race. Of note to health-care providers is the fact that the Court specifically held that Title VII pre-empts the state regulations pointed to by Plainfield in its defense.

The Court’s summary of its decision provides a directive to health-care provider/employers: “Just as the law tolerates same-sex restrooms or same-sex dressing rooms, but not white-only rooms, to accommodate privacy needs, Title VII allows an employer to respect a preference for same-sex health providers, but not same-race providers.” According to the Court, Plainfield’s exclusion of Chaney from certain residents and work areas solely on account of her race created a racially-charged situation that “poisoned the work environment” and created “fodder” for co-workers’ racially derogatory remarks.