Racism in the Baby Ward

By Mike Brancheau

Tonya Battle is an African American registered nurse who has worked for Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan for the past 25 years. Last October, Ms. Battle was caring for a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (“NICU”) when the father approached her station and reached for the child. Ms. Battle informed the man that she was the baby’s nurse and requested to see the man’s identification bracelet. The man abruptly responded that he needed to speak to Ms. Battle’s supervisor.

After speaking with the father, the Charge Nurse of the NICU informed Ms. Battle that the father did not want an African American nurse caring for his baby. In response to the request, a note was attached to the child’s clipboard that said: “Please, No African American Nurses to care for [name omitted] baby per dad’s request. Thank you.”

Some time after that, an attorney for the hospital informed the Nurse Manager that the father’s request could not be honored and that the sign should be removed. But according to Ms. Battle, even though the sign came down, the hospital made sure that no African American nurses were assigned to care for the baby for the next month.

On February 18, The Inquisitr reported that Ms. Battle was suing the hospital for discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment. In her complaint, Ms. Battle stated that she was “shocked, offended, and in disbelief” that her longtime employer would so egregiously discriminate against her based upon her race.

On February 19, Hurley’s CEO, Melany Gavulic, responding to the story, stated, “the father was informed that his request could not be granted,” and that “all nurses remained available to care for his baby.”

On February 22, The Detroit Free Press reported that Hurley Medical Center had settled the lawsuit with Ms. Battle. It now faces a lawsuit from a second African American nurse, Carlotta Armstrong.

Ms. Battle sued Hurley Medical Center pursuant to Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Ms. Armstrong filed her lawsuit under only the state law.  LASIS will explain why Hurley Medical Center was wise to quickly settle the lawsuit with Ms. Battle and should do the same in the lawsuit with Ms. Armstrong.

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act provides that “every person who under the color of any [state law]…subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen…to the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured.”

For Ms. Battle to have a successful Section 1983 claim, she would have had to prove two elements.

First, that Hurley Medical Center subjected her to conduct that occurred under the color of state law. This element is easily established, as Hurley Medical Center is a public hospital. And second, that Hurley Medical Center’s conduct deprived her of rights, privileges or immunities guaranteed to her under federal law or the Constitution. If the facts are as she alleged, this element, too, should be easy to prove. The purposeful discrimination by Hurley Medical Center clearly violated Ms. Battle’s constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ms. Battle would have been entitled to actual damages, which generally includes medical expenses, psychiatric expenses or lost wages and also damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress and damage to reputation. Ms. Battle may also have been entitled to punitive damages if she could have demonstrated that Hurley Medical Center’s actions were reckless or callously indifferent to her constitutional rights.

With both elements of Ms. Battle’s Section 1983 claim apparently satisfied, Hurley Medical Center was left with two options: to settle the case or to pursue a costly and risky defense, with bad PR for the hospital a likely outcome. Its decision to settle was clearly a smart one.

Ms. Armstrong, on the other hand, is only suing Hurley Medical Center under Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Essentially, the Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because of race. Ms. Armstrong merely has to show that Hurley Medical Center violated this Act. Again, given the racially prohibitive sign and month-long reassignment of African American nurses, Ms. Armstrong has a very strong case against the hospital and would likely recover damages under the Act. The hospital should also seek a settlement with Ms. Armstrong.

I discussed the incident at Hurley Medical Center with an Illinois hospital administrator and he said that the situation resulted from a clear “failure of management and leadership.” He stressed that hospitals are constantly faced with unique requests by patients and that management must be particularly “proactive” when dealing with requests that involve “bias and sensitivity issues.” Placing a sign prohibiting African American nurses to care for the baby on the patient’s clipboard was simply a “thoughtless, insulting shortcut” to appease a patient, without dealing with the discrimination inherent in the request.

Instead, nursing management should have explained to the father that the hospital could not accommodate his instructions. The hospital’s legal staff should have been consulted immediately to advise the staff how to proceed and to handle any potential legal threats made by the father. Any physical threats could have been managed by hospital security. As a last resort, Michigan’s Department of Human Services may have been engaged if the father were to continue to deny his child important medical care.

The hospital administrator I spoke to emphasized that the decision to place a sign prohibiting African American nurses from caring for the baby created an extremely dangerous situation in the hospital. In the NICU, each nurse is assigned to care for a baby, but due to the fragility of each baby’s life in the NICU, it is extremely important that all nursing staff to be available to respond to any “codes, cardiac arrests or other emergencies.” By granting the father’s request, Hurley Medical Center effectively created a life-threatening situation.

The incident at Hurley Medical Center should not deter hospitals from accommodating reasonable patient requests. “Cultural sensitivity” has become increasingly important in healthcare, and hospitals across the country have ramped up their efforts to provide better medical care by understanding cultural needs of each patient. For example, Muslim women will often ask to be seen by a female doctor.

When possible, such requests granted. Meeting the needs of patients with different backgrounds not only improves “cultural sensitivity,” but can also “can translate into improved health outcomes.”

And such requests are far different than that of the father who didn’t want a black nurse caring for his child.  These requests are made out of religious and modesty concerns. The father at Hurley Medical Center had one, and only one,  driving force behind his directive: racism.


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