Sex/Race-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Dismissed; Mental Health Specialist Did Not Suffer “Objectively” Hostile Environment Resulting From Patient’s Alleged Harassment

In Davis v. Elwyn, Inc., 20-cv-05798, 2022 WL 970842 (E.D.Pa. March 31, 2022), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Plaintiff, who worked as a Mental Health Program Specialist for defendant, alleged that defendant subjected her to a hostile work environment by requiring her to care for a mentally ill patient (referred to as “Patient X”) who allegedly subjected her to sexual harassment and called her racial epithets.

This decision is instructive as to what it means to suffer an “objectively” hostile work environment, particularly in the context of harassment by a client, customer, or non-employee.

The court initially considered, sua sponte, whether Patient X’s discrimination “would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances.” In answering this question in the negative, it explained:

Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Davis, the Court finds that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would not have been detrimentally affected by Patient X’s conduct. To survive summary judgment, Davis must show that Patient X’s behavior created an objectively hostile work environment. In considering whether claimed conduct would have created an objectively hostile work environment, a court must evaluate “the totality of the circumstances, which may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

The court proceeded to assess plaintiff’s race- and sex-based claims in turn.

As to Patient X’s race-based claims, the court held:

Davis claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment due to Patient X’s racial harassment. (Doc. No. 18 at 11.) Davis has not identified any specific instances in which Patient X discriminated against her on the basis of her race; however, she has testified that Patient X “would always make racial slurs” and would call the staff derogatory terms “all the time.” (Doc. No. 23-2 at 103; see also id. (Davis testifying that there were “so many instances” of Patient X making derogatory slurs “running through [her] head”).) Although courts in this Circuit decline to consider unsubstantiated allegations that the allegedly discriminatory conduct occurred “all the time,” see Nitkin v. Main Line Health, CIVIL ACTION NO. 20-4825, 2021 WL 4860742, at *11 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 18, 2021) (collecting cases), other evidence in the record corroborates that Patient X regularly used racial slurs. For instance, Mack’s testimony confirms that Patient X used racial epithets in reference to Davis and other African American staff members and also used different (but also derogatory) slurs to Caucasian staff members. (Doc. No. 25-2 at 38.)

Although repeated racial slurs could certainly detrimentally affect a reasonable person in many contexts, the Court finds that a reasonable person would not have been affected by Patient X’s conduct in this specific context. Many courts have held that caregivers at psychiatric institutes are not subjected to a hostile work environment simply because a mentally ill patient in their care makes derogatory comments. See, e.g., Matu-Dadie v. Wernersville State Hosp., No. 5:17-cv-05451, 2018 WL 4501538, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 20, 2018) (holding that a reasonable aide at an inpatient facility that served individuals with mental illnesses would not have been detrimentally affected by a patient’s use of the “ ‘N’ word” or “I don’t like black people”); Blethen v. MaineGeneral Rehab. & Nursing Care, No. 1:11–cv–00277–DBH, 2012 WL 4325824, at *19 (D. Me. Aug. 1, 2012) (“From an objective standpoint, the offensive remarks attributed to [two patients in a care facility] may well have been more than mere offensive utterances if spoken by co-workers and supervisors, but they did not reasonably give rise to an objectively hostile or abusive work environment under the circumstances because the record demonstrates that [the patients] were elderly, dependent residents at Gray Birch, whose unfortunate attitudes did not present a threat or other significant obstacle to Blethen and whose statements are therefore objectively on the level of mere offensive utterances.”); Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., No. 07 C 1722, 2008 WL 719224, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 14, 2008) (granting the defendant–nursing home’s motion for summary judgment where the plaintiff brought a hostile work environment claim based on verbal threats from a mentally ill patient). For instance, in EEOC v. Nexion Health at Broadway, Inc., 199 F. App’x 351 (5th Cir. 2006), the plaintiff cared for elderly patients suffering from dementia, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Id. at 352. One patient made offensive racial comments on a near daily basis over the course of several months. Id. The Fifth Circuit acknowledged that these statements may have been severe or pervasive in certain contexts but held that they did not support the plaintiff’s claim for hostile work environment because the patient’s comments “were not so frequent to pervade the work experience of a reasonable nursing home employee, especially considering their source.” Id. at 353. The court explained that the plaintiff’s “line of employment [was] a vital consideration.” Id. at 354. His job required him to deal with elderly people whose “minds have essentially failed,” and “[a]bsorbing occasional verbal abuse from such patients was … an important part of the job itself.” Id.

The same is true here. Patient X is a severely mentally ill patient who has been receiving care in locked down psychiatric institutes for years. (Doc. No. 25-1 ¶ 32.) And Davis was a caregiver tasked with helping Patient X and other severely mentally ill patients as they attempted to make the transition from involuntary institutionalization to the community. (Id. ¶ 14.) When Davis accepted the role, she knew there were challenging patients and was aware that Elwyn “was having trouble handling a particular patient.” (Id. ¶ 13.) Although the Court acknowledges Patient X’s racial slurs are appalling, the Court finds that an objectively reasonable caretaker in this particular setting (i.e. a locked down psychiatric institute) would not have been detrimentally affected by Patient X’s race-based comments.

Plaintiff’s sex-based claims fared no better:

Davis also claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of her sex. (Doc. No. 18 at 8.) Specifically, she claims that Patient X sexually harassed her when he poured water down her white T-shirt and pressed the water bottle against her chest in what he described as a “wet T-shirt” contest (the “Water Bottle Incident”). (Doc. No. 25 at 8.) Davis also claims that Patient X “would pull his pants down and ask if [Davis] wanted to suck his dick.” (Doc. No. 25-1 ¶ 33.) Davis does not identify any record evidence supporting the assertion that Patient X made such comments to Davis in particular, and Mack testified that Patient X “would tell the staff that they could suck his dick,” “would pull down his pants on purpose,” and “would urinate on purpose” and ask the staff—including Davis—to “clean him up.” (Doc. No. 25-2 at 43.)

Although these statements and the Water Bottle Incident are unquestionably vulgar, they also must be considered in the specific context of a locked down psychiatric institute. Patient X is mentally ill and unable to control his emotions, so he acts out when he does not get his way. (Doc. No. 25-1 at 33.) An objectively reasonable person would not have taken these statements or the Water Bottle Incident as anything more than offensive actions and comments from a severely mentally ill patient; they were not harassing or threatening, and unfortunately, it is not unexpected that a patient at a psychiatric care facility would engage in such behavior.13 See Pickett, 2008 WL 719224, at *4 (granting the defendant–nursing home’s motion for summary judgment where the plaintiff brought a hostile work environment claim based on unwanted touching from a mentally ill patient)[.]

Having concluded that the race- and sex-based conduct was not “objectively” hostile, the court turned to the second issue, namely, whether plaintiff’s employer was liable for Patient X’s conduct. In finding that it was not, it explained that this “is a case where a mentally ill and behaviorally disturbed patient was unable to express himself and routinely made inappropriate comments to almost all of his caregivers and many other patients.” While acknowledging that plaintiff “may have been uncomfortable caring for Patient X,” this “behavior is par for the course at psychiatric care facilities like Elwyn.”

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