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Nurse Says Racist Comments Led to a Toxic Workplace, and a Federal Commission Agrees

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A black nurse from Alabama filed a lawsuit against her employer, claiming racist comments made by its employees regarding former President Obama led to a toxic workplace. However, a district court dismissed her lawsuit, while barring her from introducing more evidence on the case.

However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has just filed an amicus brief with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals backing the nurse’s claims that she was subjected to on-the-job harassment.

“Racially Hostile Comments”

Cynthia Yelling first started working for St. Vincent Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama in 2010. She alleges that her workplace became increasingly toxic after some of her supervisors and co-workers started making racially insensitive comments about her in 2015. She says she was used to being within earshot of these remarks.

Things got even worse when President Barack Obama visited Lawson State Community College, a historically black university, in Birmingham in March of 2015. She says her supervisor asked her if the president went there to hand out food stamps.

Yelling also claims that some of her colleagues would refer to black patients seeking pain medication as “crack heads” but did not use the same language towards white patients looking for the same medication.

Yelling added that she was often the only black person working at the hospital during her shifts and that three of her four supervisors were white.

She then filed a racial discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the fall of 2015. Yelling says St. Vincent retaliated by firing her for allegedly falsifying patient documents, which she denies outright.

She filed a second complaint with the EEOC in February 2016.

The U.S. District Court dismissed her lawsuit after the judge refused to hear any of Yelling’s evidence from 150 days before she filed her lawsuit, including information about Obama’s visit to Lawson State Community College. The lower court ruled that these comments didn’t create a toxic workplace because they weren’t physically threatening to the nurse and because they were directed at third parties.

A Second Chance

The EEOC exists to enforce laws that prevent employers from discriminating against a person due to their race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, or disability.

After years of waiting, the commission has finally weighed in on the case. The EEOC filed a brief in the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Monday in support of Yelling’s claims.

Citing legal precedent, the brief says the district court ruled in error when it dismissed Yelling’s case and that it should’ve allowed her to present more evidence during the hearing. The document reads that the lower court “wrongly excluded racially hostile comments preceding the charge-filing period.”

It also says the court made a mistake when it ruled that these comments were not humiliating to the nurse, including those that compared Barack and Michelle Obama to monkeys, saying the former president “should move back to Africa”, and calling black patients “welfare queens” and “ghetto fabulous”. Other workers allegedly bragged about waving the confederate flag.

The EEOC also argues that any insensitive comments made within earshot of Yelling were humiliating to the nurse. It also found that the “food stamps” comment in relation to Lawson State should have been weighed heavier, considering they came from a supervisor.

“A reasonable juror could infer that the racial comments Yelling heard from her co-workers reflected their assumptions that black patients were drug-addicted or dependent on welfare because of their skin color — a skin color that Yelling shared with those patients,” the EEOC said in the brief.

In its ruling, the agency also added that gender- and race-focused comments do not need to be targeted at an individual for them to be considered hostile.

“These errors ignore well-established standards requiring hostile comments to be viewed in their social context and from the plaintiff’s perspective,” the agency said in the brief.

Yelling’s attorney, Leslie Palmer, said Yelling was pleased with the commission’s ruling.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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