In Ahmed v. Astoria Bank, No. 16-1389-cv, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 8320 (2d Cir. May 9, 2017), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a Title VII hostile work environment claim of a Muslim Egyptian employee and held that the “steady barrage” of racist and anti-Muslim comments and conduct to which she was subjected was sufficient to support a hostile work environment.

The plaintiff, a Muslim Egyptian who wore a hijab head covering, was hired by Astoria Bank (“Astoria”) as a Quality Control Analyst, subject to a 90-day probationary period. At the end of the 90-day probation period, Astoria terminated the plaintiff’s employment.

The plaintiff subsequently brought a lawsuit against Astoria in the Eastern District of New York, alleging that throughout her employment, Astoria subjected her to a hostile work environment based on her race and religion, in violation of Title VII. In fact, throughout her three months of employment with Astoria, the plaintiff claimed that: (1) on the day of her interview, Astoria’s Vice-President made a comment to her and two others of Arab or Middle Eastern ethnicity that insinuated they were all terrorists; (2) on several occasions, the same Vice-President made inappropriate jokes about the plaintiff’s race, ethnicity and religion, including telling the plaintiff to take the “rag” off of her head, referring to her hijab, that she looked better without the hijab, and that the hijab was not appropriate for the work environment; (3) her direct supervisor “singled out Plaintiff on the days she arrived late for work;” (4) her direct supervisor would “speak slowly and used gestures to communicate” with the plaintiff, which she interpreted as the supervisor not believing she spoke English; (5) her direct supervisor denied the plaintiff’s request to take a few hours without pay for a major Muslim holiday, despite the fact that two other Muslim employees who were supervised by other managers had been given the day off; (6) her direct supervisor made an allegedly “condescending” and “judgmental” comment about Arabic women wearing a head covering; (7) her direct supervisor told the plaintiff that her interview date, September 11, 2013, reminded her of “Arabic Terrorists and what they did to the country;” (8) her direct supervisor refused to permit the plaintiff to take chocolate from the supervisor’s office, despite allowing other employees to take the candy; and (9) her direct supervisor reprimanded the plaintiff for leaving early due to inclement weather, even though the supervisor had given the plaintiff permission to do so.

To prove a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, an employee must show that the underlying discriminatory acts and harassment were “severe or pervasive.” To make this determination, courts consider the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

The Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment to Astoria and dismissed the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim because the allegations “are far from the ‘steady barrage of opprobrious racial comments’ that is required” to support such a claim. The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Second Circuit reversed, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff was subjected to discriminatory harassment that was sufficient to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. The Second Circuit relied on the admissible evidence that Astoria’s Vice-President (1) constantly told the plaintiff to remove her hijab, which he referred to as a rag, (2) demeaned the plaintiff’s race, ethnicity, and religion on several occasions, and (3) made a comment during the plaintiff’s interview on September 11, 2013 that she and two other Muslim employees were suspicious and that he was thankful he was “in the other side of the building in case you guys do anything.” This evidence, the Court found, together with the evidence of her direct supervisor’s discriminatory comments and conduct, “could lead a reasonable jury to find that [the plaintiff] was subjected to ‘a steady barrage of opprobrious racial’ and anti-Muslim comments and conduct constituting a hostile work environment.” Therefore, the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for a jury trial.

If you believe that your employer is subjecting you to a discriminatory hostile work environment, it is prudent to immediately contact a New York City employment discrimination attorney to vindicate your rights under the law.

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