When Indianapolis certified nursing assistant Brenda Chaney encountered a fallen patient inside the Plainfield Healthcare Center nursing home, Chaney's immediate impulse was to offer assistance.
Instead, the African American caregiver had to hastily locate a white coworker, because the prostrate patient had stated in writing that she wanted nothing to do with black nursing assistants.
Chaney says that had the distressed patient been her own father, "you could be yellow, blue, pink or black—I would want to see him get help."
Chaney subsequently filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that Plainfield's enforcement of the patient's race-based preferences violated her civil rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit recently agreed, overturning a lower court's ruling against Chaney. The appellate decision means her case will be retried in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
Upon learning of her legal triumph, "my heart was filled with joy," relates Chaney, 49. "Number one, I would like to see [Plainfield's] policy change."
She adds that her supervisors at the suburban Indianapolis nursing home demeaned her daily with written reminders not to enter the room of the patient—identified in court records as Marjorie Latshaw—or provide her with care.
Chaney, who was dismissed by the facility within weeks of her 2006 encounter with Latshaw, says she also was subjected to racist slurs by coworkers and was fired because of her race.
However, "the investigation that we have done does not support those claims," says Plainfield's attorney, Janet McSharar.
When it comes to residents' rights, patients do have the power to say who can—and can't—care for them, McSharar says. "The [appellate] court failed to address the resident's rights are equally protected under federal law, as are the employee's rights," says McSharar. "Among other things, residents have a right to privacy and a right to self-determination."
Race-based preferences and civil rights considerations have collided in nursing homes before, according to Steve Maag, director of assisted living and continuing care at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
"In this day and age it's much less common than it was 10 or 15 years ago," says Maag, whose association represents 5,500 not-for-profit organizations providing care to older adults. "Our general policy is supporting residents' rights, as well as supporting the rights of other people as expressed by civil rights laws."
Prior to suing Plainfield, Chaney filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency filed a court brief on Chaney's behalf when she appealed the lower-court ruling against her.
Chaney's lawyer, Denise LaRue, says she'll seek reinstatement for her client, back pay and compensatory and punitive damages.
Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.