Friday, October 30, 2015

Title VII Hostile Work Environment Claim Survives Chopping Block

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed the District Court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s federal employment discrimination lawsuit. In Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Fozyia Huri sued her employers at the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.  Huri alleged defendants subjected her to a hostile work environment on the basis of her religion (Islam) and national origin (Huri hails from Saudi Arabia) in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Huri further alleged that her supervisors retaliated against her for making internal complaints about the workplace harassment. 

Specifically, in 2000, Huri began working as a child care attendant at the Circuit Court of Cook County. She always wore a hijab, an “Islamic head scarf” covering her hair, but not her face. Huri’s supervisor was Sylvia McCullom, a devout (and allegedly vocal) Christian. According to Huri, McCullom was unfriendly from the start, repeatedly referred to herself and her colleagues as “good Christians” and called Huri “evil”. McCullom also held prayer groups at work “in the name of Jesus Christ” while Huri was present. Huri made an internal complaint against McCullom which worsened the situation and subjected Huri to false criticism and allegations of misconduct. Huri was ultimately transferred to another office where she was subjected to more abusive conduct and excluded from office social gatherings.  According to Huri, she repeatedly complained to the Chief Judge’s Office, to no effect.

The Seventh Circuit allowed Huri’s claim against her employer to move forward.  To state a Title VII hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must allege: (1) she was subject to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on her national origin or religion (or another reason forbidden by Title VII); (3) the harassment was severe and pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile or abusive working environment; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.

Here, the Seventh Circuit found that plaintiff’s complaint stated a claim under Title VII. Notably, the court found that if Huri’s allegations prove true, employer liability will be proper since her direct supervisors harassed her.  The allegations of screaming, prayer circles, social shunning, implicit criticism of non-Christians, and uniquely bad treatment of Huri could create a hostile work environment.

This decision reminds employers of the importance of anti-discrimination training of supervisors as their conduct, if proven to be unlawful, could result in employer liability under Title VII civil rights laws.  Periodic training of both supervisors and employees is a worthwhile investment for employers and goes a long way in preventing employment discrimination lawsuits.