Monday, March 31, 2008, 3:20 PM

Fourth Circuit Rules For EEOC In Title VII Case Over Religiously Hostile Environment

Today the Fourth Circuit, in a opinion by Judge Wilkinson, ruled for the EEOC in a Title VII case brought on behalf of a Muslim employee. The case alleged a religiously hostile work environment in the aftermath of 9/11, through his termination in Feb. 2003. The district court had granted summary judgment to Sunbelt. The EEOC appealed and won. The case is EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc.

Judge Wilkinson's opinion for the Court begins with this introduction: "Title VII extends the promise that no one should be subject to a discriminatorily hostile work environment. In 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. Because the evidence, if proven, indicates that Ingram suffered severe and pervasive religious harassment in violation of Title VII, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remand with directions that this case proceed to trial."

The main issue in the case was whether the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive. The Court held that a jury could find that it was. "We cannot ignore ... the habitual use of epithets here or view the conduct without an eye for its cumulative effect," the Court said. "While the district court suggested that the harassment might be discounted because the environment was inherently coarse, Title VII contains no such 'crude environment' exception ...." The Court added, "We cannot regard as 'merely offensive,' and thus 'beyond Title VII's purview,' constant and repetitive abuse founded upon misperceptions that all Muslims possess hostile designs against the United States, that all Muslims support jihad, that all Muslims were sympathetic to the 9/11 attack, and that all Muslims are proponents of radical Islam."

Sunbelt also made much of the fact that those who participated in the harassment were merely coworkers, not supervisors, but the Court found a triable issue on that front. The Court also held that a reasonable jury could find, first, that Sunbelt had notice of the harassment based on complaints, and, second, that Sunbelt failed to respond with reasonable corrective action calculated to end the harassment. The Court reiterated that the mere existence of an anti-harassment policy doesn't allow an employer to escape liability; the policy must be effective to have any value.

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