On Halloween 2012, Registered Nurse Tonya L. Battle reported to work in the NICU at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, as she had done since 1988. During her shift, Ms. Battle received notice that the hospital re-assigned one of her assigned infants to another nurse because the baby’s father did not want Ms. Battle to care for the infant. The baby’s father had a swastika tattoo on his arm. Ms. Battle is African American. The baby’s father told Ms. Battle’s supervisor that he did not want Ms. Battle, or any other African American, to care for his child. According to the complaint filed by Ms. Battle, the hospital granted this request and wrote “No African American Nurse to Take Care of Baby” on the assignment clipboard in the NICU.
The federal government has enacted many laws that protect employees from discrimination based on their race, sex, color, national origin, religion, disability, and age. These are known as “protected classes.” It is clear that employers cannot disadvantage or harm employees, for example by reducing their hours, position, or income, because of one of these protected classes.
But what about a situation like the one encountered by Ms. Battle, where it is not the employer making the decision based on a protected class but where it appears to be the customer making the decision? Does the employer, a private company, have the legal right to accommodate a customer’s request if it does not harm or disadvantage the employee? Does the employee have the legal right to do his or her job without being subject to a customer’s personal (albeit distasteful and hurtful) preference regarding with whom the customer interacts? Does a customer have any right to determine who provides an employer’s services when the customer is the one paying for the services?
Right now, no clear legal answer exists to the questions raised by this now infamous request by the infant’s father. Ms. Battle’s lawsuit, filed in January 2013 against the hospital and her supervisor, contains claims for race discrimination under the United States Constitution, federal law, and related Michigan state law. All employers will want to keep an eye on the outcome of Ms. Battle’s lawsuit, for the Michigan court’s decision may serve as a catalyst for other cases governing an employer’s ability to accommodate a customer’s request as to which of the employer’s employees provides services to the customer.