Jul 29

Shannon Ragonesi

Court Says You Can't Treat People Differently Because Of Race – No Matter How Good Your Intentions May Be

by Shannon Ragonesi

In a decision this week, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an employer cannot treat employees differently based on their race, even when it appeared to be a one-time occurrence and was intended to protect their safety.  In Blackburn v. State, Docket No. 91494-0, filed on July 28, 2016, nine employees of Western State Hospital sued the State Department of Social and Health Services alleging several claims including hostile work environment and disparate treatment based on race.  Their claim centered around one weekend when a violent and delusional resident of the hospital with a history of assaults on staff and other residents made a threat that he planned to “f*** up any [n word] working with him.”  As a result, the employer reassigned staff members of color who were assigned to work with the violent resident over the weekend.  The supervisor directed staff to send the person “with the lightest skin” to work with the resident.  The change in assignments were only effective for one weekend. 

The court ruled that the staffing decision was an overtly race-based directive that violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination.  The court further ruled there was no valid legal justification for this discrimination as race was not a bona fide occupational qualification and could not legally bar an employee from working at the hospital.  Therefore, the court remanded the disparate treatment claim back to the trial court to determine appropriate damages. 

Nevertheless, the court did affirm the trial judge’s dismissal of the employees’ hostile work environment claim.  The court agreed that the staffing decision over the course of a single weekend did not rise to the level of severe or pervasive harassment.  Therefore, it was not sufficient to establish a hostile work environment for the staff.  In closing, the court further directed the trial court to consider whether an injunction might be appropriate to prevent future acts of discrimination in staff assignments. 

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