WARREN, Maine — A lawsuit filed by a black nurse who says she was taunted on a daily basis while working at the Maine State Prison can proceed, a federal judge has ruled.
Judge Nancy Torresen denied Friday a request by the Maine Department of Corrections and Deputy Warden for Prisoner Services Leida Dardis to dismiss the lawsuit filed on behalf of Shana E. Cannell.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in September 2017.
Cannell, who now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, filed the lawsuit in October 2014 in U.S. District Court in Bangor. Cannell states in her lawsuit that she was subjected to frequent racial taunts and that her employer, Corizon LLC, retaliated against her when she complained.
Corizon is the company that provides health care services for the state’s correctional facilities. Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are three of Corizon’s employees — Brian Castonguay, Larry Brayhall and Tammy Hatch.
Cannell’s attorney David Webbert said Tuesday the ruling was an important one, since there has been a trend in the workplace for companies to subcontract work and then deny responsibility when discrimination occurs.
He said the prison has a poor track record and is behind the times in treatment of blacks and women in the workplace.
Cannell was hired to work at the prison in February 2010 as a full-time licensed practical nurse and was terminated in October 2010.
Cannell said when some of the staff at the prison began to suspect she was dating a white corrections officer they began to harass her on a daily basis.
The taunts included the use of the “n” word. Comments also included: “Your people know how to barbecue chicken,” “I can be the fried chicken and you can be the watermelon,” “I am a honky and am proud to be a honky,” “What does the Confederate flag mean to you,” “Cleaning up messes is what your people do,” “Of course your people like chocolate, a chocolate for a chocolate,” and “Your people like black coffee.”
Cannell said she went both to Castonguay, who was the director of nursing, and Hatch, who was the administrator.
Cannell claims in the lawsuit that after she made her complaints there was an incident in which she was not protected when an inmate made serious and repeated threats against her, and that her car was ransacked while she was at work.
Judge Torresen ruled that Cannell had offered enough evidence of a connection between Corizon and the state department of corrections to deny the state’s request to have it dismissed from the case. The evidence shows that Cannell had spoken with Deputy Warden Dardis about the racial incidents.
The judge pointed out that Dardis spoke to Castonguay regarding Cannell immediately before Cannell was terminated.
“While Dardis’ email states that Cannell was being terminated for her conduct in the clinic, the proximity in time between this conversation and Cannell’s complaint to Dardis concerning racial harassment supports the plausible inference that Dardis set in motion Castonguay’s decision to terminate Cannell for engaging in protected activity,” the federal judge stated.
The lawsuit took so long to get to court because Cannell did not have an attorney immediately after she was fired. She filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission in January 2011. The commission did not make a recommendation in the case but issued a letter that gave her the right to pursue the matter in court.
A telephone message left Tuesday morning for Assistant Attorney General Kelly Morrell, who represents the state, was not immediately returned.
Corizon has denied it discriminated against Cannell. The company said in its response to the lawsuit that Brayall and Cannell were friends who often discussed racial issues and that when he said his great-grandmother had a black dog named for the “n” word it was done in derogatory manner. Corizon also said the watermelon and fried chicken comment was joking banter between friends.
The response also acknowledges that a captain at the prison told Cannell that cleaning up bodily fluids was “what your people do.” The company said the reference, however, was not intended as a racial slur but instead meant that nurses were responsible for cleaning such messes.