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Nurse Reassigned After Racial Comment By Patient May Proceed on Discrimination Claim

Teoka Williams worked as a nurse for Beaumont Health System. During one of her shifts, a patient requested assistance in going to the bathroom. As Williams was assisting her, this patient lost her footing. Williams grabbed the patient to prevent her from falling, which angered the patient. As she was leaving the room, Williams overheard the patient tell someone over the phone that she did not want that “black bitch” caring for her. Williams went to her supervisor to report the comment. Williams then asserted that she heard the patient tell the supervisor that she did not want a black nurse; another nurse also heard that comment. Williams was taken off care for this patient for the remainder of her shift; a white nurse replaced her. She took her discrimination complaint to HR, where Williams was told that “patients have the right to refuse care for whatever reasons.” Beaumont does not have a written policy regarding patient requests for different nurses.

Beaumont sought to dismiss Williams’ race discrimination claim on summary judgment, arguing that Williams did not have evidence that the hospital had a discriminatory intent; the only race-based comment allegedly came from the patient. The district court in Michigan rejected Beaumont’s argument, finding that Beaumont’s focus was “misplaced” because the supervisor was advised of the patient’s comments by Williams and still reassigned her within moments. A jury could find that the supervisor was “animated…by an illegal criterion,” by reassigning Beaumont quickly after being told the patient did not want a black nurse. The district court also rejected the hospital’s argument that Williams did not suffer an adverse employment action because the reassignment was “de minimis.” Citing court holdings where a race-based assignment may, in and of itself, constitute a materially adverse employment action, the district court found that if she was reassigned based on her race, it was impermissible and more than “de minimis.”