Nurse files racial discrimination lawsuit against Queen's Medical Center

Nurse files racial discrimination lawsuit against Queen's Medical Center
Published: Jun. 22, 2013 at 2:00 AM HST|Updated: Jun. 22, 2013 at 12:57 PM HST
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Carl Varady
Carl Varady

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A registered nurse has filed a lawsuit against the Queen's Medical Center, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation after she reported that patient safety was being jeopardized.

Ellen Harris said she enjoyed her job as a nurse in Queen's intensive care unit, where she had worked since 2006. Her employee records show that her competency and performance regularly met or exceeded standards.

The lawsuit contends that Queen's has a patient care policy that limits the number of patients assigned to each nurse in the ICU to two patients. In some cases, a patient's condition may require that a nurse take care of just that one patient.

The lawsuit said that on numerous occasions, Harris' assignments exceeded the limits, jeopardizing patient safety. She remembers one of those occasions, when a patient was in critical condition. "I was told when I received that patient that it was going to be a one-on-one. But that didn't happen. I ended up receiving another patient."

Harris reported those incidents to her supervisors, but claims nothing was done. And despite her good record as a nurse, Harris, who is African-American, became the target of harassment and racial discrimination.

The lawsuit said that in November 2011, Harris found a note in her work mailbox that used the "N" word against her. Two co-workers were with her when she found the note. "We turned it over to the human resources department, and the human resources director took the note, but there was never any investigation."

Harris' attorney, Carl Varady, said the "N" word is a loaded one, especially in court. "Our own Hawaii Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and courts across the country have recognized this as the most offensive racial epithet in the English language."

Then on Christmas Eve, 2011, someone taped a photo of a hangman's noose on Harris' work locker. "I just felt scared. I started getting depressed, because I didn't go back to work after the noose," she said. "It was pretty frightening to me when my family found out about it. My husband came up about it, and we talked to our kids about it. They were actually really afraid."

"The noose is a symbol of torture and terror, from days when there were lynchings," said Varady. "Lynchings occurred even into the 1950s in this country in the Deep South."

Besides discrimination and harassment, the lawsuit also seeks damages under Hawaii's Whistle Blower Protection Act. "These racially charged discriminatory hostile events escalated after Ms. Harris began complaining about patient care and patient safety," said Varady.

A jury would decide the amount of monetary damages in the case. "Ranges of cases in Hawaii in which punitive damages have been awarded to whistleblowers in similar circumstances have been in the millions of dollars," said Varady. "That would certainly be justified by the facts of this case."

Harris said she doesn't feel safe because the perpetrator hasn't been identified. "I would like to be apologized to. I would like this to be investigated. Just simple stuff. And -- nothing," said Harris. "You know, they basically did nothing."

A spokesperson for Queen's said it is the hospital's policy not to comment on pending litigation. Queen's Medical Center has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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