Sexual harassment cases are complicated. The legal standard is that harassment by co-workers which is “severe or pervasive” will constitute a hostile work environment – if of course, management knows about the harassment and does nothing. But, what happens when the harasser is a customer? If an employer is aware of the harassment and does nothing, the employer is liable. In Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, LLC, No. 17-60052 (5th Cir. 6/29/2018), we see an additional twist. What happens when the person doing the harassment is a patient suffering from dementia?
The plaintiff was employed as a certified nursing assistant at an assisted living facility. She had years of experience in the field. Perhaps, that is why she was assigned to J.S., a difficult patient. J.S. was elderly. He suffered from dimentia. He would grope the female employees and become violent when they would resist. One day, he tried to grope Ms. Gardner. She resisted. He struck her breast. He struck her again, as they tried to move him. She may or may not have swung toward him deliberately missing him. She walked out, allegedly saying she was the wrong skin color. The other white nurse apparently was able to calm down J.S.
Ms. Gardner went out on worker’s compensation leave and was fired when she returned to work. The employer said her comment was racist and that she tried to hit J.S. The CNA filed suit. The employer was granted summary judgment.
There was no question J.S. frequently tried to grope women, on their thighs, breast, buttocks and their private areas. He did this daily. The appellate court found this was “severe or pervasive” harassment. J.S. was eventually moved to an all-male facility with lock-down security.
Ms. Gardner might have still lost her claim, but her supervisors were derisive toward her complaints about J.S. One of them told her to put on her big girl pants. And, as the court pointed out, another element of a sexual harassment claim is that management takes no action to stop the harassment. The court faulted management for doing nothing to even try to stop the harassment. After J.S. had punched her three times, she asked to be transferred. Management told her no. Management clearly was not even trying to fix the problem. The plaintiff presented evidence regarding what other nursing facilities had done where she worked. They would require two or more aids, try to use medications to control behavior, or simply transfer the patient to some other facility. CLC took none of steps. And, of course, long after firing Ms. Gardner, CLC did finally transfer J.S. out of the facility.
The court recognized that there may be times when it is simply not physically possible to keep an ill patient from acting aggressively. But, there were things the employer could have done this time, in this case. But, it did none of those. The Fifth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment. See the decisions here.