A Kansas City jury recently awarded a Muslim woman $5 million in punitive damages because she was subjected to religious discrimination in the workplace. Susann Bashir worked for AT & T, where she allegedly experienced years of harassment stemming from her practice of Islam. The sizeable award reflected the egregiousness of the workplace conduct that Bashir was forced to endure. Bashir’s case included a story about her manager grabbing her scarf off her head to expose her hair. Muslim women conceal their hair because their religion considers it a “private part” of their body. Other instances of discrimination included her co-workers inquiring about whether she was a terrorist and referring to her as a “towelhead.” Colleagues also allegedly left bible verses on Bashir’s desk and asked her whether she was planning to blow up anything.
Bashir had worked for AT & T for about seven years when she decided to convert to Islam. Immediately prior to her conversion she was publicly commended in the company newsletter for doing good work at the company. She continued to work for AT & T for three years after her conversion and stated that she was continually harassed for that entire period of her employment. Although she contacted AT & T’s human resources department, Bashir says nothing was ever done to prevent or stop the constant discrimination and harassment. Finally, Bashir contacted the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission who subsequently launched an official investigation. Bashir, under so much stress from the harassment and investigation, was unable to return to work and was eventually fired.
The jury awarded Bashir $120,000 in lost wages and damages and a judge will decide later this year how much to award Bashir for her attorney’s fees. The $5 million punitive damages award, the largest award in a Missouri religious discrimination case, was ordered by the jury, but Missouri law caps these damages at five times the amount of actual damages plus attorney’s fees. As such, Bashir will likely receive a much smaller payout.
Religious discrimination suits are not always based on such explicit religious harassment, employers may also be held liable for not reasonably accommodating its employees’ religious practices. For example, North Carolina Taco Bell recently paid a Fayetteville man $27,000 to settle a religious discrimination suit. Christopher Abbey was a Nazirite who refused to cut his long hair in accordance with his faith. However, the restaurant’s grooming policy mandated short hair and he was fired for refusing to comply. Taco Bell settled with Abbey after the EEOC initiated a lawsuit alleging that the restaurant chain had violated religious protections set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
If you have been subject to religious harassment in the workplace or if your employer has refused to accommodate your religious practices you may have a valid employment discrimination claim. You should speak to a qualified employment attorney who can determine whether you should pursue your claim and hold your employer responsible for improper workplace conduct.