Patients’ Preferences may not be a Defense to Discrimination claims.

In a recent Seventh Circuit decision, the Court reversed an Indiana District Court’s decision granting summary judgment to an Employer (“Plainfield Health Care Center”) on an Employee’s (“Chaney”) claims of a hostile work environment based on racial biases and wrongful termination.

Chaney claimed that there was a resident at the Plainfield Health Care Center (“Plainfield”) that did not want assistance from black certified nursing assistants. Plainfield complied with the Resident’s requests by informing Chaney in writing that blacks individuals should not provide any care to this Resident or enter this Resident’s room.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission submitted an Amicus brief in support of Chaney’s appeal. Interestingly, this case pits a patient’s demand for white nursing assistants with an employee’s rights to a non-discriminatory work place. Although the appeal only overturned the grant of summary judgment to Plainfield, the Court did express that such a policy violates title VII by creating a hostile work environment.

Chaney’s claims will now proceed further with the district court to see, if she can prevail at trial. However, this case firmly establishes that hostile work environment claims can be based on race and that patient’s preferences may not provide a sufficient defense to overcome discrimination claims.

It will be interesting to see how the case resolves, but one could see that having policies based on client or patient preferences may subject an employer to liability under Title VII. In other words, saying that the patient or client wants to work with individuals that are White, Black, Asian, Japanese, or Indian may be the basis for discriminatory employment practices.

This is a difficult road to navigate for Employers given that quite often clients or patients are allowed to select the individuals that work with them or provide treatment for them. We will see how courts will interpret and apply this opinion.

If you want to review the opinion, then please see: Chaney v. Plainfield

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