Texas Sexual Harassment/Hostile Work Environment Claims May Be Based on the Harassment of a Customer or Patient

No Texas employee should have to deal with being harassed, whether it’s from coworkers, management, or even customers. Federal law provides employees who have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment several alternatives. Commonly, when an employee is harassed, the harassing individuals are also employees of the company. However, that no longer needs to be the case in certain circumstances.

In a recent federal court appellate opinion, the court discussed a situation in which a nurse’s sexual harassment and hostile work environment claim against her employer can proceed to trial for the conduct of a patient.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the case was brought by an experienced Certified Nursing Assistant who worked at the defendant nursing facility. The nurse was assigned to care for an elderly man who suffered from numerous mental health issues, including dementia. Over the course of several years, the patient regularly tried to grope the nurse, requested that she perform sexual acts on him, and routinely made sexually inappropriate comments. Further, the nursing facility was aware of the patient’s propensity to be sexually aggressive. After one incident, a supervisor told the nurse to “put her big girl panties on and go back to work.”

According to the opinion, one day the resident tried to grab the nurse’s breast as she was escorting him to a therapy session. The nurse moved out of the way, and the patient punched her in the breast. The patient left the room and returned with two other nurses. The patient punched the nurse two more times as the three nurses tried to get him out of the room. The nurse reported this to her supervisor and requested a transfer, which was denied. The nurse could not return to work for three months. Upon returning and refusing to care for the resident, the facility terminated the employee. The nurse filed a sexual harassment and hostile work environment claim against her former employer.

The Court’s Analysis

The court began by noting that, to succeed in a sexual harassment-hostile work environment claim, an employee must show that the harassment suffered at work was “severe or pervasive” such that it altered the employee’s conditions of employment. Here, the court held the harassment by the patient would be both severe and pervasive “if the harasser were someone without any mental impairments.” However, the court expressed concerned that the source of the harassment was an elderly patient with dementia.

The court, however, determined the patient’s conduct could be the basis for a sexual harassment-hostile work environment claim. The court noted the patient’s conduct was more than just verbal and involved physical, assaultive behavior. And while the court explained that the occasional “inappropriate touching or minor slapping” might not give rise to a claim, where the conduct escalates toward “persistent sexual harassment or violence,” an employer must step in.

In addition, the court held that despite management’s knowledge of the patient’s behavior, the employer took no action to prevent it. Thus, the court permitted the employee’s claim to proceed to trial.

Have You Been Forced to Tolerate a Hostile Work Environment?

If you are suffering from sexual harassment or discrimination by co-workers, customers or patients, and have reported the situation to management to no avail, you may be able to pursue a hostile work environment claim. At the employment law firm of Rob Wiley, P.C., we represent Texas employees who have faced all types of workplace discrimination. To learn more about how we can help you with your situation, call 214-528-6500 to schedule a consultation with a Dallas employment lawyer.

More Blog Posts:

What Is First Amendment Retaliation and How Can an Employee Bring a Claim of Retaliation?, Dallas Employment Lawyer Blog, January 10, 2019.

Are All Texas Employment Contracts Enforceable?, Dallas Employment Lawyer Blog, January 17, 2019.

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