Under Title VII, customer preferences cannot be used as legal justification for a discriminatory employment practice. This basic tenant of federal civil rights law was affirmed earlier this month in a case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In Chaney v. Plainfield Healthcare Center, the plaintiff was a nurse assistant in an elder care unit. She alleged that one of the unit's patient's charts included instructions that she "Prefers no Black CNAs."
The employer admitted that it honored the racial preferences of its patients, claiming that to do otherwise would violate state and federal laws that grant residents the right to choose providers, to privacy and to bodily autonomy. After the plaintiff's termination, she sued along with the EEOC, citing the racial preferences as one aspect of a discriminatory and harassing work environment.
The Seventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for the employer. The court confirmed well-established law that catering to the racial preferences of customers is not a defense to a Title VII claim. There is no exception to this rule for the healthcare or long term care industries. Title VII preempts any state laws that could be read to allow patients to choose their providers on the basis of race. In this case, the policy helped foster a racially hostile working environment.
Employers cannot agree to customer preferences based on protected categories (with limited exceptions for gender based on privacy concerns), even if this results in the loss of business. Post-9/11, there were a number of cases involving employers that asked female Muslim employees not to wear headscarves to work based on fears over customer reactions. While the type of race discrimination claim described in Chaney is unusual, the established legal principles behind the decision remain in effect.