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Insanity as a Defense to Race Discrimination?

A very recent case decided in a federal court in Illinois raises an interesting issue in the area of employment discrimination. In Westbrook v. Illinois Department of Human Services, an employee of the Illinois Department of Human Services sued her employer for the racially derogatory comments made toward her by a patient. The court held that was just part of her job.

Westbrook’s work history

Ms. Westbrook, who is African-American, worked as a security therapy aide for one of the treatment programs that serve people who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity by a criminal court. Her job duties included documenting the inappropriate behavior of patients, de-escalating potentially dangerous situations and preventing patients from hurting themselves or others. Part of her training included defending herself from aggressive patients and restraining combative patients. Certainly, Ms. Westbrook knew when she accepted the position that she would be working with mentally ill patients. She worked in this position for almost ten (10) years, during which time she witnessed patient assaults and offensive comments.

Allegations of racially offensive conduct

A new patient was admitted in June 2012 after she was found guilty by reason of insanity for murdering her four-year-old daughter. The patient continuously called Westbrook various racial slurs and tried to physically attack Westbrook on one occasion. Westbrook was allowed to transfer to a different position.

Claims for racially hostile work environment

Westbrook filed a lawsuit against her employer alleging race discrimination, including a racially hostile work environment. The Illinois Department of Human Services asked the court to dismiss the claims and the court did so, based on the fact that Westbrook understood the nature of her job would require her to deal with offensive comments and physical violence from patients. For that reason, the court determined that the comments and behavior of that one patient were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment.

Harassment in this situation was not sufficiently severe or pervasive

With regard to this element of the claim, the court focused on the fact that she accepted working in an inherently hostile work environment and had been trained to deal with that situation. More importantly, the harassment in this situation did not objectively interfere with her work performance or competence. There was a similar decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals involving an employee who worked with elderly people whose mental capacity had deteriorated. So, occasional verbal abuse from such patients was a part of the job. For Westbrook, the abusive language she endured from this patient was within the type of expected behavior that came with the job.

No liability to impose on the employer

As for establishing liability on the part of the employer, Westbrook could not win either. The court held that when the harasser is a third-party, as opposed to an employee, it is necessary to show that the employer was aware of the problem and did not take reasonable action to equalize the working conditions. With Westbrook’s case, there was no evidence that she ever complained to anyone in authority to take any action. For that reason, the Illinois Department of Human Services could not be held liable for the alleged harassment at the hands of the patient, who was not a co-worker. If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!