What Happens When a Patient Makes a Race-Specific Caregiver Request? Sixth Circuit Ruling Offers Insight for Tennessee Employers

Certain professional service providers, such as those in the medical profession, may sometimes find themselves in an awkward situation when a patient or patient’s family makes a request regarding the employees who will provide the patient’s care that is discriminatory in nature. Tennessee employers should take note of a recent ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that the employer’s handling of the request will not trigger a employment discrimination claim as long as the employer does nothing that would diminish the minority employee’s pay, benefits, or prestige, or otherwise materially affect the employee negatively.

In this case, a hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, had a patient in late 2010 whose family requested that no African-American caregivers be assigned to the patient. Jill Crane, a part-time nursing supervisor at the hospital and an African-American, learned about the family’s request from another nursing supervisor. Crane complained to the director of nursing, but to no avail.

The supervisor later sued her employer, alleging that the request constituted racial discrimination in violation of Title VII. The hospital asked for summary judgment, denying that it honored the family’s request but also arguing that, even if it had accommodated the family and refrained from assigning any African-Americans to the patient, Crane still did not have a valid Title VII case because at no point did Crane suffer an adverse employment impact. In fact, the hospital contended that the supervisor incurred no employment impact at all. Crane’s work hours, duties, responsibilities, status, title, benefits, and pay were exactly the same during and after the incident as they were before it.

The trial court agreed and issued the summary judgment. The employee appealed but was again unsuccessful. The major pitfall in her case came down to the issue of impact. Federal law allows employees who are victims of discrimination to succeed in their Title VII cases through one of two avenues. They can use direct evidence of discrimination, or they can present a case built upon “circumstantial evidence that would allow an inference of discriminatory intent.” Whether your case is a direct evidence one or a circumstantial one, the law demands in both situations that you prove that you suffered an adverse employment action.

Crane argued that the simple act by the hospital of making assignments based upon race harmed her. The appeals court was not persuaded. Only actions that yield a “materially adverse change in the terms or conditions of” a worker’s employment are viable as bases for a Title VII lawsuit. Mere inconveniences or changes in job responsibilities do not amount to such material changes. Impacts like loss of pay, loss of prestige, or termination of employment are examples of material changes. In this situation, the hospital’s pre-existing schedule already had a lineup of caregivers for the patient that lacked any African-Americans. The family’s request caused Crane (or the hospital generally) to have to make zero changes to the schedule. Crane’s own work schedule was entirely unaltered by the request. Since the request led the hospital to change nothing in terms of scheduling, there was no adverse employment impact to Crane, the court decided.

Recently, however, Crane decided to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In her petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the supervisor claimed that the Sixth Circuit’s decision conflicted with other appeals court opinions, including the 11th Circuit, whose decisions govern employers in Georgia. In the 11th Circuit case cited by Crane, the court ruled that actionable employment discrimination had occurred at a political telemarketing company in Alabama when the company matched white voters to white employees who used a “white” script, and African-American voters received calls from African-American employees who used a “black” script.

If you are involved in a race discrimination in employment case, it is important to retain experienced counsel who can carefully and thoroughly advise you about the law and present all of the evidence your case needs. For detailed advice and aggressive advocacy, talk to the experienced Tennessee race discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have many years of helping both employees and employers analyze and pursue their cases.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Sixth Circuit Ruling Raises Warning to Tennessee Employers When it Comes to Handing out Disparate Discipline, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Feb. 3, 2016

11th Circuit: Attacking Employer’s Business Judgment Not Enough to Show Pretext in Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 25, 2015

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