A recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois demonstrates how a supervisor’s repeated derogatory comments about an employee’s Middle Eastern background and religion that forced her to take medical leave became a triable discrimination claim. Odisho v. U.S. Bancorp, Inc., No. 16 C 11121 (N.D. Ill. 7/24/19).
Juliet Odisho worked as a Structured Finance Analyst for US Bank (“Bank”) where she reported to supervisor Tenorio. The Bank had recently acquired Odisho’s group from Bank of America, and the transition was “difficult.” Generally, however, Odisho made fewer errors than the rest of her team and continued to receive positive performance evaluations.
In 2013, Tenorio started reporting to supervisor Medina. Odisho (who is from Iraq, identifies as Asian, is Christian, and speaks English as her first language) alleged that Medina (her second-level supervisor) began “targeting” her with derogatory comments and questions about her religion, race, and nationality, including:
- Stating to Tenorio, “I don’t know why [Odisho] goes with you to church. She’s from the Middle East and she’s Muslim”;
- Asking Odisho whether she was Christian or Muslim;
- Suggesting ordering lunch from a Middle Eastern restaurant, stating Odisho would “know how that would be”;
- Asking Odisho whether an issue with a coworker was due to Odisho’s “English as a second language” and stating, “I feel like you don’t understand at times”;
- Asserting he had a “communication concern” over Odisho’s English; and
- Often asking Tenorio if he thought Odisho understood English.
Odisho also alleged that Medina micromanaged her, made misplaced criticisms about her work performance and mistakes, and treated her more harshly than other coworkers. For instance, Medina took accounts away from her and would not give her complicated or new deals.
Over time, Odisho’s work performance suffered. When one annual performance review was due, Medina asked Tenorio to lower his recommended score and include comments about Odisho’s understanding of English, a communication incident with a coworker, and that Odisho frequently asked questions. Odisho lost her bonus eligibility and was told she would not be recommended for other positions within the bank and needed to look for a job elsewhere.
Ultimately, Odisho took indefinite medical leave and began to collect disability benefits for psychiatric illness. She filed suit, claiming, among other things, that the Bank had caused the mental illness for which she had to take medical leave. The Bank subsequently moved for summary judgment.
The court denied summary judgment on several of Odisho’s claims. The court first found that Odisho presented enough evidence such that a rational juror could conclude that the bank forced Odisho to take medical leave because of her race, national origin, and religion. In reaching this conclusion, the court emphasized, among other things, the Medina-ordered downgrade on her performance review and failure to assign Odisho new deals, as well as communications that Odisho would not be recommended for other positions and needed to look for employment elsewhere. The court agreed with Odisho that the same evidence also established a triable issue about whether the bank subjected her to a hostile work environment and caused the mental illness for which she took medical leave.