What hostile work environment? The doctor only groped her once

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

If you've been on the planet for any length of time, you'll notice that there can sometimes be two kinds of reality: the kind that gets promoted -- and the kind your eyes reveal.

Take courtrooms. The prevailing notion is that everyone is supposed to get a fair shake. The facts of a case should determine its outcome; not whether one side happens to be more wealthy, powerful or connected. At least that's what's taught in civics classes. But you'll have to cut Brenda Trahan some slack if she respectfully disagrees with that notion.

Trahan was a nurse at Hardtner Medical Center in Louisiana. Like many former employees, she decided to leave her job. However, her reasons were hardly of the run-of-the mill variety. It turns out one of the doctors she worked with kissed her, nuzzled her neck, touched her breast and made inappropriate sexual comments, according to court testimony. A few days later, the same physician decided to apparently amuse himself by standing at the nursing station, staring at her and listening in on her conversations.

When she left the job, Trahan claimed her resignation was a constructive discharge. That's because after she reported the doctor's conduct, her hours were cut, her annual employee evaluation score was lowered and her employer falsified reports that she sexually harassed another co-worker, testimony revealed.

Classic slam-dunk lawsuit, right? Not so fast.

In late March, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana rejected part of her case. Chief Judge Dee D. Drell wrote she wasn't really subjected to a hostile work environment, because the inappropriate touching only happened once.

To be fair, the court denied the employer's motion for summary judgment on Trahan's constructive discharge claim, ruling she had offered enough evidence to raise a legitimate question of retribution as a result of reporting the doctor's conduct. At least that part of the case is still in play.

But what are we to make of the fact that a groping doctor only got a slap on the wrist, legally speaking? That powerful men (doctors) are to be given the benefit of the doubt if their accusers (women nurses) have less sway? That it's OK for women to be groped by colleagues, so long as the perpetrator doesn't make a habit out of it? Or both?

There is a troubling undercurrent to this case that should make every woman who works in a caregiving environment shudder. Essentially, the judge ruled that doctors who sexually grope nurses get a mulligan, at least for the first offense.

It's one thing for justice to be blind. It's quite another for it to be clueless.

John O'Connor is the Editorial Director at McKnight's. Follow him @ltcritr.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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