Sunbelt Rentals Religious Discrimination Case

In 2008, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went to the Fourth Circuit against Sunbelt Rentals for a case involving a religious harassment suit against a man who was a Muslim.

The plaintiff was an African American man named Clinton Ingram. He converted to Islam while in the US military. He was hired by Sunbelt in October 2001 and was terminated in February 2003. He stated he was subjected to a hostile environment because of his religion. He was hired a month after the attacks on the country, so that was taken into consideration in the case.

The employees of Sunbelt knew that Ingram was a Muslim and they were sure to accommodate his religious beliefs. He could have short prayer sessions throughout the day with a longer one on Fridays. He was the only Muslim in his office, though, and wore a kufi (headgear) and a beard. He claimed that others targeted him because of his beliefs while working there by calling him a “towel head” and “Taliban.” They would challenge his allegiance to the USA and make comments about him being a terrorist. On occasion, his supervisors would participate in the harassment.

When the case was sent to the district court, they judged in favor of Sunbelt, claiming that the harassment wasn’t enough to establish a work environment that was hostile. They considered it to be just typical harassment from the workplace, not something based on his religion. They concluded that, had Ingram truly believed the harassment was because of his religion, that he would have put that in his complaint he sent to Human Resources.

When the claim went before the Fourth Circuit, they said that any reasonable jury would find that the harassment he faced was not welcome. Ingram had, in the past, complained in writing and in person about his supervisors harassing him. One employee commented that Ingram constantly complained when someone said something he thought could potentially be inappropriate. Ingram defended himself when someone called him “Taliban” or made other demeaning remarks about him. The same employee stated that Ingram became a target because he took everything so personally. Ingram soon left to work with a tree service in Fort Smith, AR.

The Court of Appeals stated that the district court was wrong in their findings that the harassment wasn’t religious based. They believed that the allegations were severe enough to meet the standards of religious discrimination. They determined that Sunbelt didn’t do anything in response to the complaints either.

This case seems to be one that is occurring more and more in our country as Muslims are seen in a bad light. Businesses need to ensure that the complaints brought forth by their employees are truly listened to and any appropriate actions are taken to resolve the issues. This is only one case of many to be considered.

The Case of Abercrombie & Fitch

In October of 2013, Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire a Muslim woman applicant. Their reason was because her headscarf violated their policy on how the employees should dress. The Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals determined that they did not violate the laws of anti-discrimination in this case. The case was originally held in a lower court that ruled in the favor of the woman due to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which the higher court overruled. The lower court was also ordered to make their decision in the favor of the company because the Muslim woman did not let them know that she wore a hijab before being hired and that she needed to wear it for religious reasons. Because of this, the Court stated that the employer did not know up front that they would need to accommodate her beliefs so the EEOC would not be able to prove their case.

Many see this case as a huge failure in its ability to apply the Title VII law. The reason this law exists is to prohibit, or prevent however it can, the discrimination of individuals and their religious practices and beliefs. In the Abercrombie & Fitch case, it can be assumed that the employer would have known that the applicant, for religious reasons, wore a headscarf. Supposedly, the officials in the company who interviewed the woman knew from the beginning that she was a Muslim and would need to wear the headscarf to follow her beliefs. The argument was that the woman did not announce her need to be accommodated with the headscarf, but that seems to undermine the need for the statute. This decision seems to encourage companies not to accommodate the needs of others and to act prior to a prospective employee requesting an accommodation for their religion.

Though this ruling seemed unfair to the Muslim woman, hopefully it is a wakeup call to others to request the religious accommodations before they are hired and start their new job. By doing so, the employer cannot refuse.



Your Business and the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us, so it is imperative that your business proactively address this holiday season positively. There are some essential issues to keep in mind for your management and human resource team. You don’t want to be put in a situation where someone’s religious beliefs are put on the spot or the rules you have in place are abused. Below are some tips to help you with your holiday business parties.

  • Make sure your employees understand your policies regarding alcohol. You may not want to eliminate alcohol completely at your holiday party, so handing each employee a couple of tickets to limit their drinks may be a good idea. You will also want to cut off the serving of alcohol well before the end of the party and provide coffee and desserts to help those who have consumed alcohol during the party.
  • Ensure employees understand what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The workplace always has a potential of business being mixed with pleasure. Mix in a little alcohol, and that increases the chances of inappropriate behavior. Be sure your event doesn’t include situations that encourage anything romantic.
  • Tell your executives what you expect of them. Remind them that they must model what you want others to follow and what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable to you. You should have your human resource department send around an employee conduct reminder as well just to make sure your bases are covered.
  • Tread carefully when it comes to religion at your event. Yes, your company can celebrate the holidays. It is not a good idea, though to allow anyone in your company to turn your event into a religious observation and pray or suggest a theology. Doing this may put you in a place of making assumptions about your employee’s personal beliefs. This is where a company can get in trouble for religious discrimination.

There are many things to consider when planning an event for the holidays. Just remember the tips above to make it a great time for everyone involved.