Religion-Based Discrimination and Hostile Work Environment Jury Verdict for Plaintiff Upheld

In EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group, Inc., 14-CV-3673, 2020 WL 1083771 (EDNY March 6, 2020), the court, inter alia, upheld a jury verdict in favor of plaintiffs, who alleged that they were subjected to a religious discrimination and a religion-based hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Plaintiffs allege, in sum, that defendants imposed certain practices and beliefs, often referred to as “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness”, on plaintiffs.

From the decision:

[A]mple evidence in the record established that numerous religious images and practices permeated the office environment, and that employees were required to participate in such religious practices. Among other things, defendants’ office environment was cluttered with pervasive religious imagery, including rosary beads, Buddhas, and Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness literature, posters and banners; employees were given Onionhead feeling and truth cards and Onionhead workshop materials and instructed to use them; employees were strongly encouraged or instructed to wear Onionhead pins; employees were scheduled for attendance and participation at the Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness workshops, which employees understood were mandatory. As further noted above, the Onionhead religion motivated certain idiosyncratic office practices, including the dismantling of overhead lights, use of candles, incense, and table lamps, hugging and kissing of coworkers, praying and meditation, and coworkers being directed to say “I love you.” All of these practices, taken together, could be found to have “unreasonably interfere[d] with an employee’s work performance” and altered the conditions of an employee’s work environment for the worse.

The court proceeded to reject defendants’ argument that “discomfort or finding something strange, or even inappropriate or offensive, is not sufficient to support a hostile work environment claim”, noting that the Second Circuit has “implicitly rejected this argument, in reversing the granting of summary judgment on hostile work environment claims where the plaintiffs had alleged that the defendants’ conduct caused plaintiffs to feel ‘uncomfortable.’”

In sum, after an extensive analysis, the court concluded (as to liability) that considering the trial evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50, there was a legally sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find for plaintiffs on their hostile work environment claims, and denied defendants’ Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law on those claims.

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