Claims of racial bias brought by a black nurse who was reassigned by her employer after a white patient complained can move forward, a federal court in Michigan ruled, writing that any intentional use of race—even for benign motives—must be subjected to careful judicial scrutiny.

While nurse Teoka Williams was helping a white patient out of bed, the patient lost her footing and Williams grabbed her to prevent a fall. The patient told Williams not to touch her and requested a new nurse.

When Williams left the room, she overheard the patient on the phone telling someone that she did not want that “black bitch” taking care of her. A co-worker also overheard the conversation. Williams then went to her supervisor and told her about the patient’s comment.

The supervisor spoke with the patient, whom Williams and her coworker heard say she did not want a black nurse. The supervisor then removed Williams from caring for the patient and assigned a white nurse to the patient instead. Williams complained about the incident to human resources and said she was told that patients have the right to refuse care for whatever reason.

Based on the reassignment, Williams sued her employer for racial discrimination in violation of Title VII and Michigan state law. The hospital moved for summary judgment, arguing that Williams failed to present sufficient evidence of intentional discrimination and that any injury was de minimis.

But U.S. District Court Judge Victoria A. Roberts denied the motion.

“On this record, a reasonable jury could conclude that the ‘black bitch’ comments, of which [the supervisor] was aware, constitute direct evidence of discrimination; a jury could find that [the supervisor’s] knowledge of the statements was contemporaneous with Williams’ reassignment or causally related to the adverse action decision making process,” the court said.

The hospital argued that the only evidence of discrimination presented by Williams was the statements made by the patient, which cannot be imputed to the employer. “While [the hospital] is correct, its focus is misplaced,” the court explained. “What is true and important is that Williams’ supervisor … was informed of the ‘black bitch’ statement by Williams and reassigned Williams within moments.”

A reasonable jury could find that the patient’s statement to the supervisor that she did not want a black nurse and Williams informing her supervisor of the “black bitch” comment were directly related to the supervisor’s decision-making process and evidence that suggests someone with managerial authority was animated by an illegal criterion, Judge Roberts said.

“[C]onsidering [the supervisor] reassigned Williams—a black nurse—just moments after being told (by both Williams and the patient) that the patient did not want a black nurse, a reasonable jury could conclude that ‘unlawful discrimination’ (i.e., reassigning Williams because of her race) ‘was at least a motivating factor in the employer’s actions,’” the court wrote.

The court also determined that the reassignment constituted an adverse employment action. Courts have found that an employer’s race-based assignment may, in and of itself, constitute a materially adverse employment action, and that even a temporary or brief abridgement of a plaintiff’s Section 1981 rights is actionable, the court wrote, rejecting the employer’s position that any alleged adverse action suffered by Williams was de minimis.

“Williams was assigned to provide care for the patient and was allegedly reassigned to accommodate the patient’s race-based preference,” Judge Roberts said. “This reassignment—if based on Williams’ race—constitutes an impermissible alteration of her responsibilities and the terms and conditions of her employment that is more than temporary or de minimis. A reasonable jury could find that this incident had more than an insignificant impact on the terms and conditions of Williams’ employment.”

The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

To read the opinion in Williams v. Beaumont Health System, click here.

Why it matters: “Any intentional use of race—whether for malicious or benign motives—is subject to careful judicial scrutiny,” the court wrote, offering a cautionary tale for employers.