Persistent Harassment of Muslim Warrants Jury Trial, Even in “Coarse” Workplace.

May 4th, 2008

A federal Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court ruling that granted summary judgment for the employer in a religious harassment case. The plaintiff was a Muslim American, hired one month after the 9/11 attacks, who was subjected to virtually daily comments from co-workers and at least one acting manager about his religion. This included comments about his appearance (e.g., being called “Towelhead” and “Taliban”) and religious practices (regular prayer session) and various other harassing acts such as removal of his timecard, unplugging his computer, and defacing documents on his desk. Plaintiff complained to his supervisors repeatedly and asked for a transfer, but nothing was done to resolve the problem. The Company’s defense was that the workplace was “inherently coarse” and that they did speak with co-workers about the complaints (but they started up again afterward). The Court of Appeals reasoned that a jury could find that the cumulative conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute religious harassment and that the Company did not do enough to stop it. Particularly relevant in this regard were reported comments from the supervisors that Plaintiff should have a more positive attitude and let things roll off his shoulder. The Court opined that there is no “crude environment” exception to Title VII, although the character of the workplace can be a factor in determining whether the conduct met the applicable legal standard. In this case at least, the Court was convinced a jury was needed to sort out the evidence. EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, U.S. App. LEXIS 6789 (4th Cir. 2008).