EEOC holds Sunbelt Rentals Accountable
Clinton Ingram served our country in the United States Army. While in the Army, Ingram converted to Islam. After getting out of the military, he went to work for Sunbelt Rentals in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He started in October 2001, a month after the September 11th attacks. Ingram rose from the position of a truck driver to Rental Manager when he was let go in February of 2003.
Sunbelt allowed Ingram to use a private upstairs room for short prayer sessions, as well as, attend weekly congregational prayer sessions that took place between 1:00-1:45 p.m. on Fridays. It was clear that Ingram was a practicing Muslim. He observed the tenets of his faith by participating in the prayer sessions, he maintained a beard and wore traditional Muslim male headgear (a kufi).
Coworkers and managers were not tolerant of his faith. His coworkers called Ingram “Taliban”, “towel head”, ridiculed his appearance, challenged his allegiance to the United States, and suggested he was terrorist. On one occasion, an employee held a metal detector to his head. After the metal detector did not go off, the employee called Ingram a “fake ass Muslim want-to-be turbine wearing ass.” When his allegiance to the United States was brought into question by a coworker who asked, “are you on our side or are you on the Taliban’s side,” and who also stated, “if you don’t like America or where we stand, you can just leave,” Ingram responded that he was an American and a Muslim.
In addition to the verbal ridicule, Ingram would find his timecard hidden multiple times during the work day, especially on Friday when he would leave for 45 minutes to attend congregational prayer. Ingram was harassed about taking his prayer sessions and told by a manager that he wanted to be a Muslim so he could have eight (8) wives.
Sunbelt employees acknowledged, that due to the September 11th attacks, religious tensions ran high within the company and the country. In addition, the trial judge allowed Sunbelt customers, who were Muslim, to testify how they were treated at the Gaithersburg branch. Those customers testified that Sunbelt employees called them a number of derogatory names including “Bin Laden,” “Hezbullah,” “Ayatollah,” “Kadaffi,” “Saddam Hussein,” “terrorist,” and “sun nigger.
Sunbelt argued that the instances of this adverse conduct were limited, even though Ingram testified he was subjected to religiously intolerant conduct on virtually a daily basis. In addition, Sunbelt argued that it could not be responsible for the actions of coworkers since, once it learned of the conduct, it took prompt remedial action. While the Court acknowledged that Sunbelt could not be charged with “cleansing the workplace environment of all offensive remarks,” it could be held accountable for its failure to to take meaningful action to stop the actions of Ingram’s coworkers, as well as, for the conduct of its managers. In arriving at these conclusions, the Court was convinced that, in spite of the climate that existed in the United States immediately following the September 11th attacks, employees had the right to be free from religiously intolerant conduct in the workplace. The Court also felt the conduct, to which Ingram was exposed was not isolated or trivial in nature, but, instead, was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment based on Ingram’s professed religion.
The Bottom Line:
Regardless of the general environment existing within our culture, employers are required to assure their workplace is free from harassment and discrimination. Here, the prevalence of the harassment, management’s participation in the harassment and the failure to take meaningful steps to end the harassment caused the employer legal exposure. Claims of this nature should not be taken lightly. Employers should take care to address these claims in a timely and meaningful fashion. In this case, Ingram’s claims were bolstered by his repeated report of offense treatment by coworkers and management and the company’s apparent failure to take those reports seriously.