Healthcare Update, No. 4, November 2012: Hospital Receptionist Harassed By Patient – EEOC Sues

by Fisher Phillips
Contact

[author: F. Kytle Frye]

Today, most healthcare employers are sensitive to issues of workplace harassment, although the focus of that sensitivity is usually upon issues involving co-worker to co-worker and supervisor to subordinate conduct. It is important to remember that the law's protection applies also to harassment from third persons who are not employees. And, given the presence of so many non-employees in the typical healthcare setting, the opportunities for problems arising are enormous.

The EEOC has recently filed a lawsuit which reinforces the need to be vigilant concerning harassment by non-employees in a healthcare environment. EEOC v. Southwest Virginia Community Health System.

Comments From An Unusual Source

In a lawsuit filed in federal district court, the EEOC charged a Southwest Virginia Community Health System with violating federal law by subjecting a female employee to a sexually hostile work environment. According to the EEOC, a receptionist at the hospital was subjected to sexual harassment by a male patient from April to December of 2009, and again from June to September of 2010.

As described by the lawsuit, the harassment included unwelcome sexual comments, such as an invitation that she "run away" with the patient, statements that he was "visualizing her naked," and suggestions that she have sex with him. The Commission alleges that these kinds of comments were made both in person when the patient visited the facility and by telephone when he called in to the facility. Significantly, the lawsuit also alleges that the receptionist complained about these statements to her supervisor, who did nothing to stop them. On these facts, the EEOC seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief, against the Health System.

Assuming that these allegations are provable, when the receptionist complained to her supervisor about this patient's conduct, the Health System was legally put on notice of the alleged conduct – even if the supervisor said nothing to anyone else in authority. At that point, it became incumbent upon the employer to investigate and, if appropriate, take prompt remedial action, even though the offender was a patient and not another employee.

Assuming the employee did complain to her supervisor, we can only speculate as to why nothing more was done, but it is quite possible and consistent with what has happened elsewhere, that the harasser's status either caused the supervisor to conclude that there was nothing that could be done, or chilled the supervisor from further pursuing the matter. Either way, the Health System was put at risk.

Preventing This Type Of Problem

So, how should an employer sensitive to harassment in all its forms deal with complaints about patients or other non-employees? The first, and most obvious, remedy is to make absolutely sure that supervisors are aware that harassment by patients – indeed, by any non-employee – is every bit as serious as harassment by employees. Employers should review their anti-harassment policies on that point and should make that clear in periodic training given to supervisors.

By the same token, nonsupervisory employees should be made aware that you expect them to raise complaints about such conduct from patients and other nonemployees, just as they are expected to advise of conduct by fellow employees.

Second, in the event that harassing conduct is brought to your attention, you must conduct a serious and thorough investigation. Of course, such investigations are often more difficult than more typical complaints, since you usually may not compel cooperation from nonemployees to the extent that you can from employees. But that does not mean that you should not gather as much information as possible, and then reach a reasonable conclusion.

Third, you must promptly act on the results of the investigation in such a way as is reasonably calculated to resolve the complaint. In many cases, this may result in a consultation with the patient or other non-employee. In other cases, it could even result in advising a patient to seek care elsewhere or in restricting the patient's access to certain areas of the facility, or at least actively monitoring the patient's conduct while at the facility.

In any case, the complainant should always be advised of at least the general action taken, and encouraged to report further misconduct. In addition, you should also periodically and on your own accord, inquire of the complainant concerning any recurrence.

Training, vigilance and prompt corrective action are the keys to avoiding the often huge cost of harassment lawsuits. These are no less important in the case of harassing conduct from patients, as from other employees.

For more information contact the author at KFrye@laborlawyers.com or (404) 231-1400.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Fisher Phillips | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Fisher Phillips
Contact
more
less

Fisher Phillips on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.