Courts recognize the complication that exists when determining what constitutes actionable harassment where a healthcare employee is a caretaker for a patient with diminished capacity. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reviewed this issue in a Title VII case that highlights the risks posed to employers in the healthcare and social assistance industries by patient harassment and violence: Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, LLC, No. 17-60072 (February 6, 2019). In Gardner, the Fifth Circuit explained the risks to healthcare employers when it reversed summary judgment on a nurse assistant’s claim for hostile work environment and retaliation, holding that a genuine dispute of material fact existed as to whether an assisted living facility took reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment and physical violence by a resident.
Gardner was a Certified Nursing Assistant employed at the Plaza Community Living Center, an assisted living facility, and “often worked with patients who were either physically combative or sexually aggressive.” Gardner had been assigned to work with a patient who had been diagnosed with multiple “physical and mental illnesses,” and had a reputation for groping female employees, as well as a history of violent and sexual behavior toward both patients and staff at the facility. Gardner alleged that she put up with propositioning and sexual assault by the patient on a regular basis, but that when she complained to the administrator at the facility, she was told to “put [her] big girl panties on and go back to work.”