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Court Upholds Religious Discrimination, Retaliation, and Hostile Work Environment Claims By Muslim Man

by mjpospis on June 12, 2014

in Defamation, Employment Discrimination, Hostile Work Environment, Religious Discrimination, Retaliation

In Ibraheem v. Wackenhut Services, 09-cv-5335 (E.D.N.Y. May 9, 2014), the Eastern District of New York denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff’s religious discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims. Until his termination, plaintiff – a black male Muslim – worked for defendant as a security officer at 26 Federal Plaza in New York City.

He alleged discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law. Specifically, plaintiff claimed that defendant discriminated against him by, for example, forcing him to produce, on demand, a letter proving his adherence to his religion in order to justify an exception to the company’s “no beard” policy.

Initially, the court held taht plaintiff’s claims of race and age discrimination were not “reasonably related to” his EEOC charge of discrimination, and were thus not properly before the court.

Religious Discrimination

As to plaintiff’s religious discrimination claims, the court held:

Plaintiff has raised a genuine issue of fact with respect to whether the adverse employment actions taken against him were motivated by a discriminatory intent based on religion. The primary evidence of Defendants’ allegedly discriminatory intent is that (1) during a one-week period in June 2009, Plaintiff was asked on approximately five separate occasions by his supervisors to produce his proof-of-religion letter, even though Wackenhut policy or practice did not require employees to carry these letters with them at work; and (2) approximately two months later, Plaintiff began experiencing a series of adverse events in the workplace that he had never before encountered, including being written up for violations he denies, under questionable circumstances.

In August 2009, for example, Plaintiff was accused of sleeping on the job. When he denied the accusation and demanded to see videotape evidence, Defendants neither provided it to him, nor, it appears, sought to obtain it from FPS. Plaintiff was nonetheless disciplined for being inattentive to duty, a serious infraction. The circumstances of the sleeping incident and Defendants’ handling of it raises triable issues of fact as to the veracity of the charge and the motivation behind the disciplinary action taken against Plaintiff.

Similarly, the events immediately preceding Plaintiff’s termination raise questions about the motivation behind the termination. While Plaintiff acknowledges leaving his post without permission for approximately seven minutes on April 1, 2010, he disputes the charge that he left a second time that day without permission. Instead, Plaintiff contends that he left his post the second time at the direction of his supervisor, Charles, as communicated through Plaintiff’s fellow security officer, Rivera. There is a clear factual dispute as to what happened with respect to the second incident-Rivera’s testimony corroborates Plaintiff’s version; Charles’s testimony contradicts it-and, by extension, Defendants’ true reasons for firing Plaintiff that day.

Thus, the totality of the circumstances regarding Plaintiff’s alleged workplace infractions, especially the circumstances surrounding his termination, coupled with the earlier proof-of-religion letter incidents, raise genuine issues of material fact, to be resolved by a jury, as to whether Plaintiff suffered adverse employment actions on the basis of his religion.

In sum, there remains a genuine issue of triable fact as to the reasons why Defendants persisted in requesting Plaintiff’s proof of religion letter, and whether the subsequent adverse employment actions he sustained, including termination, were related to a discriminatory motive.

Retaliation

Next, the court sustained plaintiff’s claim that he was retaliated against for initiating the lawsuit and for filing an EEOC charge.

To withstand summary judgment on this claim, plaintiff was required – in light of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Nassar decision – to “submit evidence sufficient to permit a jury to conclude that the defendant’s retaliatory motive was a ‘but-for cause’ of the adverse employment action the plaintiff experienced.” This “requires proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.”

Applying the law, the court held:

Plaintiff has established a prima facie case of retaliation. Plaintiff alleges he was retaliated against for submitting an EEOC charge of discrimination and for filing this lawsuit. Plaintiff was terminated after his filing of the EEOC charge, and after filing this lawsuit, thereby permitting an inference that he was retaliated against. … However, for temporal proximity alone to establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the temporal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment activity must be “very close.” Here, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on December 7, 2009, and later submitted his EEOC charge on or about January 27, 2010. Plaintiff was terminated on or about April 1, 2010, after being found away from his post on two occasions that day. This relatively short period of approximately two months is within the time period the Second Circuit has found sufficient to support an inference of retaliation. …

However, where the Second Circuit has found an inference of retaliation based upon temporal proximity, there also existed other evidence to support the inference. … Here, there is other evidence to support an inference of retaliation. The circumstances surrounding the proof-of-religion letter and the subsequent infractions at work, which Plaintiff claims were pretextual, constitute additional evidence that could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Plaintiff’s termination was retaliatory. Accordingly, those facts, coupled with the timing of Plaintiff’s termination, create a genuine issue of fact as to whether Plaintiff was retaliated against for filing his EEOC charge and/or initiating this lawsuit.

Hostile Work Environment

The court likewise refused to dismiss plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims:

Considering the totality of the circumstances, there is a genuine issue as to whether Plaintiff experienced a hostile work environment. The facts and arguments that support Plaintiff’s discrimination claim are intertwined with, and support, his hostile work environment claim. As discussed above, given the inference that could be drawn from the requests that Plaintiff produce the proof-of-religion letter, a reasonable jury could conclude that the workplace events that followed, including Plaintiff being written up for various workplace infractions, were all part of a hostile work environment based on Plaintiff’s status as a Muslim. … It may be true that physically complying with the request that Plaintiff maintain the letter on his person while on the job was not demanding. But working in an environment in which one is asked to provide proof of their religious status to supervisors, followed by being disciplined for infractions based on a discriminatory intent, if proven, could constitute a course of conduct that materially altered the terms or conditions of Plaintiff’s employment. In sum, a reasonable jury could conclude that the circumstances constituted a hostile work environment.

Intentional/Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress; Defamation

The court, however, dismissed plaintiff’s claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. As to his defamation claims, the court applied the “common interest privilege”, which “applies to evaluations of employees made by their superiors.”

Categories: Defamation, Employment Discrimination, Hostile Work Environment, Religious Discrimination, Retaliation

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