Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession (7)3 Mar 99

Quick Summary: The male charge nurse did sexually harass a female staff nurse, but the nursing home was not liable for damages.

   When the victim reported it, the nursing home immediately interviewed the witnesses, immediately reassigned the nurse/victim and soon fired the charge nurse in line with its already-existing objectionable behavior policy. UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT, MINNESOTA, 1998.


   The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota said the male charge nurse’s fondling of a female staff nurse did create a hostile working environment, for which the nursing home potentially could be liable to pay damages to the nurse in a civil lawsuit.

   However, in this case, the court ruled the nursing home had a three-pronged legal defense to liability.

   The court said the nursing home had already disseminated an Objectionable Behavior Policy among its employees. The policy statement explicitly defined sexual harassment and promised would-be perpetrators they would be dealt with harshly.

   The nursing home followed its policy. Literally within minutes when the nurse complained to management, management talked to the witnesses whom the nurse identified.

   The nurse was immediately given the choice to work in another unit, away from the perpetrator, when the witnesses corroborated her complaint.

   Then, when the victim was fully validated by complete internal disciplinary processes against the perpetrator, he was fired, to protect other potential victims and to send a strong message to other potential perpetrators.

   According to the court, a victim of sexual harassment must report it within a reasonable time. If a victim waits an unreasonable time, a court can hold the victim to some extent responsible for her own predicament. The courts decide what is reasonable on a case-by-case basis, without firm guidelines.

   In this case, the staff nurse’s shift started at noon. The charge nurse ended his shift at 3:30 pm. He fondled her three times between 1:00 pm and 2:30 pm. Waiting to 3:30 pm to complain, after the charge nurse had left for the day, was certainly not unreasonable, the court ruled.

   The victim must identify witnesses, if any, and must assist the employer in its investigation. In this case it was her co-workers who brought the victim to human resources, offered their assistance and fully validated what the victim had to say.

   Before she left, the nurse was asked to report at an hour early the next day to learn what management had done and told she would then be able to start her shift on another unit.

   The court could not stress often enough the importance of an employer taking the victim seriously and acting speedily, for the victim’s sake and to avoid or minimize legal liability. Grodzdanich v. Leisure Hills Health Center, Inc., 25 F. Supp. 2d 953 (D. Minn., 1998).