ST. PETERSBURG — A federal judge ruled Monday that Palms of Pasadena Hospital discriminated against several black employees by barring them from treating a patient for 17 days in 2013 because of their skin color.
After reviewing evidence and depositions in which hospital leaders admitted to barring black caregivers from the patient, Judge Mary S. Scriven wrote that "such intentional racism is prohibited."
Syrenthia Dysart, a nurse at Palms of Pasadena, launched the litigation about a year and a half ago when she walked into a hospital room and began checking a patient's vital signs. The patient did not object, she said. But moments later, according to her lawsuit, a supervisor asked Dysart to leave because she is black.
According to court documents, the patient, an older Hispanic woman, was in the hospital after being mugged by an African-American man. Hospital employees reported that whenever she saw a black employee she became extremely nervous and, on one occasion, incontinent. Hospital officials claimed that during her stay, she demanded that "no blacks'' care for her, and her daughter echoed that statement. But in a later deposition, the daughter denied this.
Ryan Barack, one of three lawyers representing Dysart, 34, said a jury trial will begin April 6 in U.S. District Court in Tampa to determine whether the nurse — who still works at Palms — should receive damages from the hospital.
"We believe that a jury will agree that what was done to Ms. Dysart and the other African-American nurses was inappropriate and should not have occurred in a civilized society," Barack said Monday afternoon.
According to the suit, the hospital placed a sign on the patient's door that read, "Please report to nurse's station before entering room.'' There, a supervisor would screen nurses for "acceptable race," the suit said.
Palms of Pasadena, purchased about a month after the September 2013 incident by hospital chain HCA, released the following statement Monday:
"We are committed to providing an inclusive work environment where everyone is treated with fairness, dignity, and respect. We will make ourselves accountable to one another for the manner in which we treat one another and for the manner in which people around us are treated. We are committed to recruit and retain a diverse staff reflective of the patients and communities we serve. We regard laws, regulations and policies relating to diversity as a minimum standard."
Dysart started working at Palms in a dietary-food service position in 1998 and was later promoted to licensed practical nurse, a position she still holds. She went to human resources officials Sept. 3, 2013, days after being barred from caring for the Hispanic patient. Officials up to and including the hospital CEO admitted that race influenced their decision and considered it in line with policies to honor patient requests, according to the suit.
Dysart was offered paid leave, but when she returned to work, light-skinned hospital staffers still were being assigned to treat the patient.
Jay Wolfson, professor of health law at the University of South Florida, said the incident reflects the balancing act that hospitals face between employees' rights and patient's requests.
"How much prerogative should you have," he said, "when there is no cultural, social or medical basis for saying that a black nurse, a green nurse or a white nurse are any different in terms of quality?"
Contact Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @zackpeterson918.