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After a Missouri health care worker was subject to several instances of physical and verbal harassment from a patient, she sued her employer. Chavonya Watson argued that Heartland Health Laboratories created a hostile working environment by failing to protect her from the third party harassment.
The Eighth Circuit, however, was unconvinced. the court found that, even if an employer could be held responsible for a third party, the harassment alleged was too fleeting to have created a hostile work environment, having occurred for just moments at a time.
Bad Job, Bad Patient
Watson worked as a "route phlebotomist," traveling between facilities to draw blood, collect urine, and take stool samples -- basically, our nightmare job. One of her stops was Plaza Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. During a regular visit, Watson was felt up by a patient, Charles Ramsey, as she attempted to draw his blood. After she reported Ramsey's aggressive groping, her supervisor started sending only men to draw Ramsey's blood but declined to change her route so she would not have to return to Plaza Manor.
When she returned, the harassment continued. Several times, Ramsay cursed at her and used racist slurs when they encountered each other -- eventually threatening that he was "going to get" her. Watson subsequently didn't come in to work for three days and she was let go.
Harassment Was Not Extreme Enough
After her job was terminated for abandonment, Watson sued, claiming that Ramsey's actions were racial and sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment, leading to her "constructive discharge" by Heartland. The case was filed under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which the Eighth Circuit noted was interpreted under both state and consistent federal law. Assuming, arguendo, that an employer could be liable for a non-employee's third party harassment, the Fourth found that Watson still couldn't show that the alleged harassment effected the terms of her employment.
The court emphasized the "demanding" standards for hostile work environment claims. The sexual harassment behind such a claim must be "so intimidating, offensive, or hostile," characterized by "intimidation, ridicule, and insult," that it poisons the work environment. Given the brief duration of Watson's contact with Ramsey -- she was at Plaza Manor for only a few hours a day and interacting with Ramsey for only a few moments of that -- no objective person could find pervasive harassment, the Fourth held.