Second Circuit Allows Muslim Employee’s Hostile Work Environment Claims to Move Forward

Lev Craig

On May 9, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied summary judgment in Ahmed v. Astoria Bank, where plaintiff Sherin Ahmed brought religion, race, and national origin discrimination claims against her former employer. The Second Circuit held that the district court had erred in concluding that Ahmed had not presented evidence of discrimination and harassment sufficient to meet the threshold for a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). As such, the court vacated the lower court’s granting of summary judgment, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

Ahmed, who is originally from Egypt and immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, is a practicing Muslim woman and wears a hijab as part of her religious observance. In 2013, Ahmed interviewed for a quality control analyst position at Astoria Bank, a Long Island City­-based bank serving the New York metropolitan area, and was hired, conditional upon a 90-day probationary period. But, she alleges, Astoria Bank discriminated against her based on her race, religion, and national origin beginning as early as the day of her interview, when Anthony Figeroux, a Vice President at the bank, told her that she and two other Middle Eastern employees were “suspicious” and that he was glad he was “in the other side of the building in case you guys do anything.”

The offensive comments and discriminatory treatment continued throughout Ahmed’s employment; for example, Figeroux “constantly” told Ahmed to remove her hijab, which he referred to derisively as a “rag,” and Ahmed’s direct supervisor refused to allow her to take time off to observe a Muslim religious holiday. Astoria Bank abruptly terminated Ahmed’s employment at the end of her 90-day probationary period, purportedly because of “poor performance,” though her supervisors had never before raised any performance concerns to her. Ahmed complained to the bank that she believed the firing was discriminatory and, shortly afterward, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Astoria Bank moved for summary judgment on all of Ahmed’s claims, which the district court granted; Ahmed then appealed the dismissal of her Title VII hostile work environment claim to the Second Circuit.

In last week’s decision, the Second Circuit disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that the evidence did not rise to the “severe or pervasive” standard for a Title VII hostile work environment claim. Vacating and remanding the lower court’s decision, the Second Circuit determined that Ahmed had shown sufficient evidence of discriminatory harassment for her hostile work environment claim to survive summary judgment. The court pointed to several specific pieces of admissible evidence, including Figeroux’s repeated disparaging comments to Ahmed about her hijab and his discriminatory comments about Ahmed and other Middle Eastern employees during Ahmed’s interview. In light of such evidence, the court held that a reasonable jury could “find that Ahmed was subjected to ‘a steady barrage of opprobrious racial’ and anti‐Muslim comments and conduct constituting a hostile work environment.”

As the Second Circuit noted, quoting the district court, this case is “right on the knife’s edge of either granting [summary judgment] or allowing [the case] to go to the jury.” The Ahmed decision shows how important even just a few discriminatory comments can be in making or breaking a hostile work environment case. If your employer has discriminated against you based on your religion, race, national origin, or any other protected characteristic, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.