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When it comes to discrimination, the customer isn’t always right

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Employment discrimination has been illegal for decades, but prejudice lives on. Even if bigoted customers insist on discriminating because of race, employers must still comply with the law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discrimination in compensation, terms, conditions and privileges of employment because of the individual’s race. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Illinois employers, recently affirmed the supremacy of Title VII. In Chaney v. Plainfield Healthcare Center (No. 09-3661, 7th Cir., 2010), the court ruled that an employer’s policy that excluded black nursing assistants from working with certain patients created a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII.

The patient’s desire to receive treatment only from white employees didn’t matter.

Preferences, policies, profanity

Brenda Chaney, who is black, worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Plainfield Healthcare Center, an Indiana nursing home.

One resident in Chaney’s unit specified that she preferred no black CNAs, something noted on the assignment sheet that listed Chaney’s residents and their care needs. Plainfield had a policy of honoring its residents’ racial preferences, so Chaney was banned from assisting this particular resident.

In addition, Chaney said she often overheard disparaging racial comments, and that co-workers called her racial epithets.

Chaney was terminated after just three months. The ostensible reason: A nurse’s report that Chaney used profanity while assisting a resident.

Chaney sued Plainfield under Title VII, claiming the nursing home’s policy of honoring its patients’ racial preferences created a hostile work environment and that Plainfield fired her because she is black.

The trial court dismissed the case, concluding that Plainfield’s racial preference policy was reasonable given its good-faith belief that ignoring patients’ racial preferences would violate Indiana’s patient-rights laws.

Title VII trumps state law

The 7th Circuit overturned the trial court’s decision, holding that Plainfield’s policy created a hostile work environment.

The appeals court considered the entire context of the workplace and held that a reasonable person would find Plainfield’s work environment was hostile or abusive. It determined that Plainfield fostered a racially charged environment through its daily reminder on Chaney’s assignment sheet that certain residents preferred no black CNAs.

Plainfield argued it had to comply with patients’ demands because it risked violating state laws that grant residents the right to choose health care providers.

The court rejected that argument, stating, “It is now widely accepted that a company’s desire to cater to the perceived racial preferences of its customers is not a defense under Title VII for treating employees differently based on race.”

The court pointed out that such a reading of state law would conflict with Title VII and that federal law prevails over state law. It noted that state regulations merely require Plainfield to give residents access to health-care providers of their choice; they don’t require compliance with the residents’ racial preferences.

Customer bias is no excuse

Plainfield also argued that Title VII permits sex discrimination in health care settings for the sake of patient privacy. The court disagreed, reasoning that the privacy interest that is offended when a patient undresses in front of a doctor or nurse of the opposite sex doesn’t apply to race.

Plainfield further argued that without its racial preference policy, black employees might be exposed to racial harassment from the residents. That might expose Plainfield to hostile workplace liability. The court stated that Plainfield had options for dealing with a bigoted resident. Before admission, for example, it could tell residents about its nondiscriminatory policy and get their consent in writing. The nursing home could try to reform the resident’s behavior and assign staff to patients based on race-neutral criteria. Instead, the court said Plainfield didn’t do anything to address the racially hostile environment.

What employers must do

This case is the most recent illustration that it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate based on customer preferences. That’s true even when employers must balance those preferences against their duty to provide a workplace free of discrimination.

Employers must take a proactive approach to prevent a hostile work environment. In Chaney, the employer did not take sufficient measures to address the employee’s claim of a hostile work environment.

Advice: Consult your attorney to ensure your policies and practices comply with Title VII.

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