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4th Circuit Sends Religious Harassment Case Back For Trial

Published by on April 3, 2008

In EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., the Fourth Circuit overturned an award of summary judgment in a Title VII religious harassment suit and sent the case back to the district court for trial.  The case involved allegations that the plaintiff was subjected to repeated instances of harassment because he was a Muslim.  Judge Wilkinson wrote, in reversing the […]

In EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., the Fourth Circuit overturned an award of summary judgment in a Title VII religious harassment suit and sent the case back to the district court for trial.  The case involved allegations that the plaintiff was subjected to repeated instances of harassment because he was a Muslim.  Judge Wilkinson wrote, in reversing the district court’s summary judgment, that “[i]n the wake of September 11th, some Muslim Americans, completely innocent of any wrongdoing, became targets of gross misapprehensions and overbroad assumptions about their religious beliefs  but the event that shook the foundations of our buildings did not shake the premise of our founding — that here in America there is no heretical faith.”

The plaintiff, Clinton Ingram, was an African American who converted to Islam while serving in the United States Army.  In October 2001, Ingram was hired by Sunbelt, which rents and sells construction equipment, and was terminated in February 2003.  The EEOC alleged that Ingram was subjected to a religiously hostile environment.  The Fourth Circuit strongly considered the allegations in the context of the country’s changing attitudes towards Muslims following the September 11th attacks because he was hired a month after the attacks.

Sunbelt employees were fully aware that Imgram was a Muslim and in fact, Sunbelt accommodated his beliefs.  Sunbelt permitted Ingram to use a private, upstairs room for short prayer sessions that were required by Ingram’s faith and allowed Ingram to attend a weekly prayer session that took place from 1:00-1:45 p.m. on Friday afternoons.  Ingram was the only Muslim at the Gaithersburg office, and wore a beard and a kufi (a traditional Muslim headgear for men). Ingram claimed that during his tenure he was subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of his Muslim religion.  Ingram alleged that coworkers often called him such names as “Taliban” and “towel head.”  Fellow workers made fun of Ingram’s appearance, challenged his allegiance to the United States, suggested he was a terrorist, and made comments associating Muslims with senseless violence.  Ingram’s supervisors sometimes personally participated in the harassing conduct.  Ingram was also subject to several religiously charged incidents that were based on a link between violence, September 11th and Islam.  Ingram was also the object of other non-religious harassment, such as hiding of his time card and defacing of his business card by writing “dumb-ass” over his name. 

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Sunbelt holding on the facts alleged, it did not believe the harassment was severe or pervasive enough to establish a prima facie case of a hostile work environment.  The district court emphasized several factors in making its finding. The district court noted that “there’s a lot of coarse behavior that goes on in the workplace,” especially a place such as Sunbelt.  Further, the court stated that many alleged incidents, such as the hiding of the time card, lack a “direct nexus with religion.”  Finally, the court stated that if the alleged religious incidents were so severe or pervasive, Ingram would have included them on his complaint to HR.  

The Fourth Circuit found, however, that a reasonable jury could find that the harassment was unwelcome.  Ingram complained, both verbally and in writing, about alleged harassment to his supervisors.  In fact, a coworker testified that Ingram complained “whenever anything that Ingram believed to be inappropriate was said or done to him.”  Ingram also submitted a written complaint to Human Resources, noting that he was “tired of the harassment.”  Ingram also responded to coworkers and defended himself when he was called “Taliban” or made fun of.  The same coworker stated that they made fun of him more partly because he “took it so personally.”

The Court of Appeals also found that the district court erred in finding that the harassment was not based on religion and that the basis of his coworkers conduct was their disrespect for his religion. Finally, the Court found that the allegations cleared the high bar that is required to meet the severe and pervasive standard.  The context of the allegations was relied on by the Court.  The evidence demonstrated that the religious harassment was persistant, demeaning, unrelenting and widespread.  After the September 11th attacks, Sunbelt employees openly talked about how the “Muslim religion is bad.”  Also, after the DC snipers were discovered to be Muslim the negative sentiment rose, and Ingram was a target.   Ingram was subject to repeated comments disparaging both him and his faith.  He was called offense names, challenged about his loyalty to the US, and harassed about his appearance.  Sunbelt employees also made abusive comments about Islam in general.  In addition, Ingram was harassed and even threatened about his short prayer sessions.   In support of finding that Ingram could have objectively believed that he was being harassed, the Court pointed to the testimony of customers who also heard the anti-Muslim hostility from Sunbelt workers.   Accordingly, it was determined that a reasonable jury could find that harassment took place, that Sunbelt had notice of the religious harassment and that Sunbelt may not have taken reasonable corrective action.  In fact, there was “scant evidence” that Sunbelt did anything meaningful in response to Ingram’s verbal complaints, and Sunbelt’s response to his formal complaint Ingram was told that he was “paranoid” and needed to develop a more positive attitude.  Based on the above, a genuine dispute of fact was found to exist with respect to each element of the hostile work environment claim, and summary judgment was reversed and remanded.

Contributed by Michael K. Wilson.

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