A former employee of Southwestern Bell/AT&T in Kansas City, Missouri was recently awarded millions of dollars in punitive damages by a jury in a religious discrimination lawsuit. The former employee, Susann Bashir, claimed co-workers at Southwestern Bell/AT&T engaged in discriminatory conduct against her after she converted to Islam in 2005, and that the company created a hostile work environment by not taking steps to address her complaints.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes religious discrimination as “treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs.” Moreover, “harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
If the jury was guided by the EEOC’s definition of religious harassment and applied it to the facts of the case here, it is not difficult to see how they reached their decision.
According to Bashir, some of her co-workers at Southwestern Bell/AT&T engaged in a continuing course of offensive conduct following her conversion to Islam several years ago. Some colleagues left Bible verses on her desk, others suggested she would hear better without her headscarf and asked her “if she was going to blow up the building.” She was also called a terrorist and “towel head.” A controversial e-mail, the contents of which were not described, was also circulated throughout the office. Perhaps the most egregious incident occurred in 2009, when Bashir claims her boss “grabbed her by her scarf, nearly pulling it off.”
Bashir took a leave of absence from the company for several months following the incident, but was terminated after 9 months.
Bashir filed, but later dropped, a harassment complaint against Southwestern Bell/AT&T with the EEOC in 2008. She later requested a transfer, but was told by the company it would violate union rules.
Southwestern Bell/AT&T concedes that an e-mail regarding Bashir and her conversion to Islam was passed around the office, but that the company resolved it. Southwestern Bell’s managers deny Bashir’s accusations, and their lawyer reminded jurors that Bashir did not follow up on her initial complaint in 2005, when she called the employee hotline to report the harassment.
After several hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Bashir on the hostile work environment claim, and awarded her $120,000 in lost wages and $5 million and damages. Bashir praised the jury for making a “loud…point to the companies, large corporations about how they treat their employees. I think it spoke loudly and I appreciate that.” Southwestern Bell/AT&T plans to appeal.
If you or your employee has been accused of sexual harassment, you should contact a sexual harassment lawyer in Los Angeles right away. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, or any type of hostile or offensive conduct in your workplace, a sexual harassment lawyer in Los Angeles with experience and expertise in this area of the law can advise you of your options. Whichever side of a harassment suit you are on, a sexual harassment lawyer in Los Angeles can guide you through the legal process and recommend a course of action and help you achieve the best outcome based on the facts of your case.