Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Customer preference does not protect employers from race discrimination claims

CNN reports that a Flint, Michigan, nurse is suing her hospitalbecause it kowtowed to a man’s request that no African-American employees care for his baby. The lawsuit [pdf] outlines her key allegations:

     11. The father told the Charge Nurse that he did not want any African Americans taking care of his baby. While telling the Charge Nurse, he pulled up his sleeve and showed some type of tattoo which was believed to be a swastika of some kind.

     12. After the father made the discriminatory request to not allow African Americans to take care of his baby, instead of flatly denying the request, the Charge Nurse called the Nurse Manager, Defendant Osika.

     13. Defendant Osika told the Charge Nurse, Herholz, to re-assign the baby to another nurse and to advise Plaintiff that Defendant Osika, would speak to her supervisor and take care of it the next day.

     14. Plaintiff was re-assigned on or about October 31, 2012 because she is African American….

     19. When Plaintiff reported to her work, she learned that during that day there was a note prominently posted on the assignment clipboard that read as follows: “NO AFRICAN AMERICAN NURSE TO TAKE CARE OF BABY.” Plaintiff was shown a picture of the note.

Let’s make this as clear as possible. Adhering to the request of a customer is not a defense to a race discrimination claim. As one court succinctly stated : “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.” (Note that the same might not hold true for a customer preference based on gender, because employers can claim a bona fide occupational qualification as a defense to a sex discrimination claim).

If you find yourself in a position of having to face down a customer making such a request, take a stand. Tell the customer, “We don’t treat our employees like that, and if you can’t deal, we don’t need your business.” Be the better corporate citizen. It’s not just the legal way to act, it’s the moral way to act.