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Court: Case alleging senior facility let residents racially harass staff may move forward

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Dive Brief:

  • The government can move forward with a lawsuit alleging a nursing home failed to stop White residents from harassing Black employees, a federal judge said Monday.
  • The U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont denied on Monday a Vermont senior care facility’s request for judgment on pleadings in a case filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the facility. The complaint alleged that 98 Starr Road Operating Co., known as Elderwood at Burlington, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 by knowingly allowing White residents to continue to racially harass Black workers, creating a hostile work environment. White residents allegedly repeatedly used racist slurs like “coons,” “monkeys” and “Black bitches” toward Black employees and made race-based threats, including hopes to hang or shoot Black workers, court documents said. 
  • The district court denied Elderwood’s request for judgment on the grounds that there isn’t a bright-line rule, or clearly defined rule, “preventing employees from bringing Title VII hostile work environment claims against a long-term care facility for the harassing conduct of the facility’s patients, even those that are cognitively impaired,” according to court documents. “Other courts have held that long-term care facilities may be liable under Title VII for hostile work environment claims if the facility knew or should have known about the harassment of its employees but failed to take appropriate remedial measures,” the court said. 

Dive Insight:

Federal laws protect workers from harassment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, older age, disability or genetic information. Conduct is considered harassment when it “is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive,” the EEOC says. In the Elderwood case, White residents used racial epithets against Black workers repeatedly. 

The EEOC is known to flag companies where customers or patients are permitted to harass workers. For example, in July 2022, an Illinois gas station and convenience store operator agreed to a $75,000 settlement over EEOC claims the company failed to protect an employee from customer harassment. The employee allegedly had to face months of sexual advances by a customer without the company stopping the harassment, the EEOC said. 

Likewise, in November 2018, R. MacArthur Corp., a senior care provider, agreed to pay $340,000 to settle race and sex harassment claims. The lawsuit alleged the company ignored complaints from in-home caregivers about a client groping them and making sexually and racially offensive comments at their expense.

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