Seyfarth Synopsis: Anti-Muslim rhetoric dominates many media headlines. A May 9, 2017 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit highlights the risks to an employer when anti-Muslim rhetoric enters the workplace.

The Facts

In Ahmed v. Astoria Bank et al., the Second Circuit considered a claim brought by a plaintiff employee who had been terminated from her employment at Astoria Bank, at the end of her probationary period, for tardiness and carelessness in checking important documents. The employee’s claims included that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment because she is Egyptian and Muslim.

The History

The District Court had granted summary judgment to the employer. As to the hostile-environment claim, the Court had reasoned that the alleged stray comments did not rise to the required “severe and pervasive” level. The employee appealed only the ruling on the hostile environment claim.

The Second Circuit’s Holding

The Second Circuit reversed, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the employee was subject to severe and pervasive discriminatory harassment. The Court relied principally on the employee’s evidence that the supervisor “constantly” told her to remove her hijab head-covering, which he referred to as a “rag”; demeaned her race, ethnicity and religion “on several occasions”; and made a comment during her September 11, 2013 interview 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.”

Considering this evidence, together with allegations such as that another manager used hand gestures and spoke slowly to the plaintiff in everyday conversation as if to suggest she did not know English, the Second Circuit held that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff was subject to a “steady barrage of opprobrious” racial and anti-Muslim comments.

On that basis, while acknowledging the evidence was “on the knife’s edge” between summary judgment and trial, the Court reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded for a jury trial.

The Broader Context

Concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment affecting the workplace are hardly new. We’ve blogged before about the EEOC’s 2016 Questions and Answers for employers concerning workers who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern.

In that publication, issued in the wake of the Paris and San Bernandino attacks, the EEOC posited that, “Reactions in the workplace to world events demand increased efforts by employers to prevent discrimination.” Since then, the need has arguably only increased.

So What Can Employers Do?

Employers can take preventative steps to mitigate the risks.

  • The current climate is an opportunity for employers to take a fresh look at anti-discrimination and harassment policies, complaint mechanisms, and accommodation practices, to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws.
  • Effective training not only helps prevent litigation, but can assist a defense. All employees should be trained that harassment and discrimination – including comments such as those alleged in the Ahmed case – will not be tolerated. Training that is specific and interactive is most effective.
  • Companies should further train managers on nondiscriminatory hiring practices, and how to manage employee complaints.
  • Managers should also be aware of the need to consider accommodations for certain religious practices, such as the wearing of a hijab, and how to process such requests. Managers should be trained that an employee who receives a religious accommodation should never be subject to negative comments as a result.
  • When an employee complains of alleged discrimination or harassment, the employer should investigate promptly, and if a violation is found, take prompt remedial action.