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Court Dismisses Race Discrimination Claim Against Criminally Insane Harasser

By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On March 26, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant in Westbrook v. Illinois Department of Human Services, dismissing the hostile work environment claims brought by Velma Westbrook against her former employer, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). Ms. Westbrook, an African-American security therapy aide, alleged that a patient repeatedly made racially derogatory comments and once tried to attack her. The court held that, due to the nature of Ms. Westbrook’s job, the patient’s offensive comments and behavior were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of Ms. Westbrook’s employment, meaning that Ms. Westbrook could not sustain a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

In 2001, Ms. Westbrook began working as a security therapy aide for IDHS’s forensic treatment programs, which house and provide treatment for individuals who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity in criminal court. As a security therapy aide, Ms. Westbrook’s job duties included documenting residents’ inappropriate behavior, de-escalating resident behavior in potentially dangerous situations, and preventing residents from harming themselves or others. At the beginning of her employment at IDHS, Ms. Westbrook received training on how to deal with disruptive residents, restrain combative residents, and defend herself against residents who became aggressive, and she testified that she knew when she took the job that she would be dealing with mentally ill individuals. Over the course of her nearly 10-year employment at IDHS, Ms. Westbrook observed patients assault others on a regular basis, and she regularly worked with patients who said hurtful or offensive things to staff members.

In June 2012, a new resident was admitted after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for the first-degree murder of her 4-year-old daughter. According to IDHS, between April and October 2014, this resident continuously called Ms. Westbrook racially derogatory names and racial slurs—for example, “black bitch,” “ni**er,” and “black cow”—and, on May 3, tried to physically attack Ms. Westbrook. Ms. Westbrook was ultimately transferred to a different position and brought race discrimination claims against IDHS, arising out of the alleged racially hostile work environment she had experienced between April and October 2014. IDHS moved for summary judgment on Ms. Westbrook’s claims, which the court granted.

The court began by reviewing the standard for a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, which required Ms. Westbrook to show that: “(1) she was subject to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on her race; (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of her employment and create a hostile or abusive atmosphere; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.” Here, while Ms. Westbrook could show unwelcome racially motivated harassment, the court determined that she could not satisfy the third or fourth elements.

In addressing the third element—whether the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive—the court emphasized that Ms. Westbrook’s working environment was inherently hostile and that she had been trained to deal with the specific difficulties of her job. Moreover, the court found that the harassment did not objectively interfere with Ms. Westbrook’s work performance or undermine her workplace competence, citing E.E.O.C. v. Nexion Health at Broadway, Inc., 199 Fed. App’x. 351 (5th Cir. 2006), where the plaintiff’s “job required him to deal with the tragic failings of elderly people whose minds have essentially failed” and “[a]bsorbing occasional verbal abuse from such patients was not merely an inconvenience associated with his job; it was an important part of the job itself.” Here, the court determined that, as in Nexion, the hostile and discriminatory behavior was part of Ms. Westbrook’s job and was within the range of behavior that the Ms. Westbrook was hired and trained to handle.  Given this context, the court found no reasonable factfinder could conclude the resident’s behavior was so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of Ms. Westbrook’s work environment.

Addressing the fourth element—employer liability—the court applied the negligence standard: Where a harasser is a third party, a plaintiff must show that the employer (1) knew of the problem, and (2) did not act reasonably to equalize the working conditions once it had knowledge. The court found that Ms. Westbrook failed to show that she had notified any other supervisor of the resident’s racially offensive conduct or that anyone above her direct supervisor—who had been indifferent to her complaints for months, but had no authority to deal with the harassment—knew, or should have known, about the discriminatory behavior. In sum, the court found that the evidence did not show that Ms. Westbrook had taken reasonable steps to bring her concerns of racial harassment to the attention of her supervisors or that IDHS otherwise should have known about the resident’s discriminatory behavior. As such, the court held, IDHS was not liable here.

The Westbrook case demonstrates how unpredictable discrimination cases may be: the employee’s supervisor knew that employee had to suffer extreme race-based harassment and did nothing, yet the court dismissed the case.  If you believe you that your employer—whether a supervisor, co-worker, or third party—has discriminated against you, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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