CHICAGO (CN) — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, arguing on behalf of Black nursing home workers who say their employer fostered a racist work environment.
"Apart from the n-word, people were called all sorts of hateful things... there's a litany of things that happened to them," EEOC attorney Gail Coleman told the three-judge appellate panel.
The nursing home in question is known as The Village at Hamilton Pointe, located in the far-southern Indiana town of Newburgh just north of the Kentucky border. The Black Hamilton Pointe workers represented by the EEOC include nurses, medication aides and dietary staff who say that besides being called slurs and facing discriminatory behavior by coworkers and supervisors, there was a concerted effort by Hamilton Pointe's administration to cater to the aging non-Black residents' racist preferences. Staff would reportedly tolerate residents calling Black workers slurs and accommodate those residents who didn't want to be cared for by Black caregivers — effectively barring the workers from certain rooms on the property.
"Claimants testified that Hamilton Pointe routinely catered to the racist demands of its residents by making race-based assignments and instructing Black staff to stay out of certain rooms," the EEOC said in its appellate brief. "Sometimes these instructions were verbal and sometimes in writing. One typewritten assignment sheet, posted for all to see, said, 'NO AFRICAN AMERICAN MALES TO PROVIDE CARE.'"
The EEOC dated Black Hamilton Pointe workers' experiences of this racist environment to at least 2015, and initially filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of seven of them in September 2017. Besides Hamilton Pointe itself, the complaint also named as a defendant Tender Loving Care Management, which organizes the nursing home's management, finances and HR Department. By 2018 the EEOC had identified 52 workers facing similar experiences under Hamilton Pointe and TLC Management, but it voluntarily removed five of them from the suit.
The case went to jury trial in August 2022, but not before the Bill Clinton-appointed U.S. District Judge Richard Young tossed all but seven of the Black workers' claims and cleared TLC Management of any liability. The jury ultimately ruled against the EEOC for all but one worker — a man named RoShaun Middleton, whom the court awarded $45,000 for his co-worker/resident racial harassment claim.
Before the Seventh Circuit on Wednesday, Coleman argued that the appellate court ought to restore the claims of 15 of the 40 workers Young removed from the case, and reverse his judgment clearing TLC Management of any responsibility for the racist treatment the workers faced. Coleman also sought a new trial for the six workers whom the 2022 jury ruled against, claiming the judge had provided the jurors with misleading verdict forms. The EEOC argued that it had raised a single hostile work environment claim for all its claimants, while the verdict forms falsely insinuated that it was raising separate issues over co-worker/resident racial harassment and racial harassment by the Black workers' supervisors.
"If the verdict forms had been correct, that would have eliminated any confusion," Coleman said. "As it was, it truly was impossible for the jury to rule on the totality of circumstances."
Hamilton Pointe's attorney Laurie Martin, of the Indianapolis law firm Hoover Hull Turner, alternatively argued that the verdict forms were in "virtually the same form" as proposed by the EEOC, and that nothing about them prevented the jury from fairly evaluating the workers' claims.
"This form didn't preclude the jury from considering any evidence," Martin said, later doubling down on the argument that the documents indicated two separate claims.
"I believe that the case law clarifies that these are two distinct claims. A claim for supervisor harassment is a distinct claim, there are distinct legal burdens... that apply there, then a claim for coworker or third party harassment fits under that co-worker [standard]," Martin said.
The three-justice appellate panel, consisting of Ronald Reagan appointees Kenneth Ripple and Joel Flaum and Donald Trump appointee Michael Scudder Jr., took the arguments under advisement but did not say when they would issue a ruling.Follow @@djbyrnes1
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