Black nurse sues after white patient asks for no black caregivers
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – A black nurse has sued Spectrum Health System after, she said, officials granted a white patient’s request for no black caregivers.
Michelle Acklen, who was working for Spectrum Health through Cross Country Staffing, said she was re-assigned patients numerous times until her assignment ended in July.
Spectrum Health said it does not allow patients to choose caregivers based solely on race or other characteristics.
“(Acklen) felt harassed, humiliated and discriminated against as a result of the segregation of her job duties and being unable to perform her job responsibilities because of her race,” attorney Julie Gafkay wrote in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
She said Acklen, who lives in Tennessee, worked at Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center on Fuller Avenue NE through the staffing agency beginning in October 2016.
She said she was assigned to Spectrum Health, required to follow its practices and report to Spectrum Health supervisors, and was treated as a Spectrum Health worker.
She said the trouble started in March, when a supervisor told her that a patient no longer wanted black caregivers or nurses.
She said the patient’s request was granted. When she was assigned to the patient’s floor, she had to change patients with a white nurse, the lawsuit said.
“Defendant intentionally discriminated against African American employees, including plaintiff, when it required that no black employees care for a certain Caucasian patient,” Gafkay wrote.
Spectrum Health would not comment on details of active litigation, but said in a statement:
“Spectrum Health deeply values the diversity of our employees, medical staff, patients, volunteers and visitors. This includes cultivating a diverse workforce and creating an environment of mutual respect for all.
“Our policy is very specific and clear that we do not accommodate requests by patients to receive care from a team member based solely on characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, pregnancy status, marital status, height, weight or color. We do not tolerate discrimination or engage in discriminatory behaviors.”
Gafkay has filed similar lawsuits. Hurley Medical Center in Flint paid nearly $200,000 to settle a 2013 case when a nurse said she was not allowed to treat an infant because she is black.
In a 2015 opinion, U.S. District Judge Janet Neff in Grand Rapids said that a black worker, Tamika Foster, could not show she suffered an adverse employment action – such as a change in shift, hours or pay – while working at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.
She said that black workers cared for a white patient, so that the nurse could not prove assignments were based on race.
“While (Mary Free Bed’s) acquiescence to a race-based care request appears inherently wrong and generally contrary to anti-discrimination law, the question in this case is whether this plaintiff can recover for intentional discrimination under the legal theories presented. On the record before the Court, the answer is ‘no’ because any effect on Plaintiff was de minimis (minor) and temporary,” Neff wrote.
In another lawsuit against Mary Free Bed, nursing supervisor Jill Crane contended her employer made assignments and a promotion based on race. The hospital said there was no adverse effect to her employment and that black workers did care for a white patient whose family did not want a black caregiver.
U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney in Kalamazoo ruled: “The Sixth Circuit (Court of Appeals) has held that ‘mere inconvenience or alteration of job responsibilities’ is not an adverse employment action, and ‘reassignments without salary or work hour changes do not ordinarily constitute adverse employment discrimination claims.'”
“However, other courts have held that job assignments based on race are adverse employment actions even when there is no monetary loss, because such assignments affect the terms and conditions of employment.”
The federal appellate court affirmed Maloney’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
“The district court’s determination that an adverse employment action must be more than de minimus is in line with other cases from the Court,” the federal appeals court said.
“An adverse employment action is ‘a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of (the plaintiff’s) employment …’ and generally involves material changes in employment status such as ‘hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a change in benefits.'”
In the most-recent case, Acklen has filed a race-discrimination claim.
“The said racial discrimination related to plaintiff’s employment and/or contractual relationship with defendant and she was denied the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms and conditions of that relationship because of her race,” Gafkay wrote.
She said her client suffered “reassignment, emotional distress and mental anguish, past and future injuries to feelings including extreme embarrassment and humiliation, past and future outrage, damages to reputation … .”