Three workers sue Abington Hospital over racist incident Supervisors obliged a 2003 demand for only white staff in a delivery. The suits follow a federal ruling.

Posted: September 16, 2005

Three African American employees have filed federal lawsuits against Abington Memorial Hospital after a 2003 incident in which they were barred from treating a white woman whose male partner did not want blacks providing medical care.

The suits, filed in U.S. District Court by surgical technician Esther Ray, nurse Carol Dennis, and technician Melanie Kellum, come two years after a man said that he did not want African American maternity-ward staffers to assist in the delivery of his child.

In a decision that hospital president Richard L. Jones Jr. later called "morally reprehensible," nursing supervisors gave in to the man's request and told black employees to stay out of the patient's room during the couple's four-day stay.

That directive violated the hospital's antidiscrimination policy as well as employees' civil rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, according to a recent ruling by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That ruling allowed the lawsuits to proceed. They were filed Monday.

The hospital should have refused the man's request or told the couple to find care elsewhere, according to the plaintiffs' complaints.

"It's a stark and rather depressing reminder that your skin color still determines what happens to you . . . rather than who you are or what you do," said Frank Finch 3d, the plaintiffs' attorney.

In a prepared statement, Abington Memorial vice president Meg McGoldrick said that hospital officials would not discuss the lawsuit, but that all staff members are valued as "caring and competent."

"Racism and bigotry cannot and will not be tolerated," she said. "In keeping with this philosophy, the hospital's leadership has made its diversity initiative a top priority."

The incident began on Sept. 9, 2003, when the pregnant woman was admitted to the suburban hospital for a cesarean section.

Her partner was a white male who, according to Kellum's complaint, was described by an Abington nurse as a member of the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group.

The couple's identity has been shielded by patient-privacy laws. It could not be determined whether the couple was married.

Upon admission to the hospital, the expectant father used a racial slur when he told an obstetrical resident that no African Americans were to assist in the woman's care, according to the plaintiffs' complaints.

The man's request was conveyed to nursing supervisors, who took several steps to ban black staffers from the couple's room. The hospital's senior administrators were never alerted to the problem.

According to the lawsuits:

Ray began to cry after being told by a nursing supervisor not to enter the patient's room.

Ray, who had experience with cesarean-section procedures, was replaced by a white nurse with little experience in them.

Another nursing supervisor told Kellum that if the patient's call button went on, she should not respond but should instead let a white nurse check it.

To prevent black staffers from entering the room, a sign was placed outside the patient's door that read, "All visitors and staff to stop at Nurses' Station before entering the room."

African American food-service workers were instructed to leave meal trays at the nurses' station so that white staffers could deliver them to the room.

African American housecleaning workers and others were also kept out of the room.

The events reflect a hospital that failed to conduct adequate equal-employment-opportunity training, did not enforce its own antidiscrimination policies, and made African American members feel like "second-class members of the hospital community," according to the plaintiffs' complaints.

The statement by the hospital cited a number of efforts it has launched since the incident: adopting a policy of immediately notifying senior administrators when discriminatory problems arise; instituting mandatory diversity training for all staff; and hiring a director of diversity.

Contact staff writer Oliver Prichard at 610-313-8219 or oprichard@phillynews.com.

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