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Name Calling, Prayer Circle, and Social Shunning Help Revive Discrimination Claims

Reversing a decision it described as “replete with error,” the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has revived an employee’s claims of retaliation, and religion- and national origin-based hostile work environment.  Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Cir. Ct. of Cook Cnty., No. 12-2217 (7th Cir. Oct. 21, 2015).

Fozyia Huri, a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, began working for the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois in 2000.  Huri always wore a hijab.  While working as a child care attendant from 2002 through late 2010, Huri’s supervisor was a “devout Christian.”  In fact, Huri did not have any Arab or Muslim colleagues.

Huri alleged that the harassment began almost immediately:  her supervisor did not introduce herself for nearly two weeks.  Then, for the next eight years, the supervisor routinely told Huri of other employees, including the chief judge, who were “good Christians.”  In 2009, the supervisor allegedly told a co-worker to work with a “good Christian” instead of Huri, who the supervisor called “evil.”  The supervisor also led a Christian prayer circle at work; wrongly criticized and made false misconduct allegations against Huri; subjected Huri to different rules and standards than her colleagues; screamed at Huri; and scrutinized Huri’s work more closely than that of her colleagues.  When the supervisor learned of Huri’s internal complaints, she told Huri that the office was uninterested in, and tired of, the complaints.  The criticism and false allegations continued.

In late 2010, Huri was transferred to the Court Reporters’ Office.  Huri’s supervisors there, however, treated her much the same as her former boss.  In addition, the new supervisors prohibited Huri from accessing her office early, prohibited Huri’s daughter from waiting for her in the lobby, and prohibited Huri from having non-work items in the office.  Other employees were able to do each of these things.  Huri’s supervisors also denied her time off for an Islamic holiday.  Huri made additional internal complaints, which went nowhere.

After filing charges with the EEOC, Huri filed suit alleging that the defendants harassed her because of her religion and national origin, and retaliated against her for complaining about that hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  The federal district court in Illinois granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Reversing the dismissal, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Huri sufficiently stated the circumstances of a hostile work environment in her EEOC charge.  The court also concluded that Huri engaged in protected activity through her EEOC charges and internal complaints.  The actions taken against Huri “would certain cause a reasonable worker to think twice about complaining about discrimination.”  On the harassment claim, the court concluded that Huri’s dress makes it reasonable to assume that her supervisors knew she was a Muslim and an Arab.  “It is enough to say that it is plausible that the screaming, prayer circles, social shunning, implicit criticism of non-Christians, and uniquely bad treatment of Huri and her daughter could plausibly be abusive.”

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