- A former customer service agent for American Airlines who says she was asked during an interview for a promotion where she came from and called a terrorist by a co-worker failed to prove her national origin discrimination claim, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Hukman v. American Airlines, Inc., No. 19-1934 (3rd Cir. Dec. 31, 2019)).
- Sheida Hukman, who identifies as a woman of Middle Eastern Kurdish descent from Iraq, said she was asked during an interview for a promotion "where do you come from?" As part of an internal investigation of the matter, the interviewer submitted a letter stating that he had meant to ask after her work history because Hukman's resume was not available. The court also noted that Hukman had been rated "below expectations" in several categories and provided "unresponsive answers" during the interview. The court noted that she had "numerous conflicts" with her co-workers and that at a disciplinary meeting she was "erratic" and "combative." She also provided "no further details" about a co-worker calling her a terrorist.
- The district court awarded summary judgment to the airline and the 3rd Cir. affirmed. The appeals court said Hukman had not produced any evidence that would create an inference of national origin discrimination in the employer's "promotion, transfer, disciplinary and termination decisions." Given that her interviewers did not have any information about her past work experience and that her interviewers immediately clarified that they were asking for that information when she volunteered her national origin, Hukman's belief that she was not promoted because of her national origin was not enough for a prima facie case of discrimination, the court said.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) forbids discrimination based on national origin in employment, including job assignments, promotions, transfer and discipline. National origin discrimination involves treating employees unfavorably because they are from a particular country or because of ethnicity or accent, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) holds.
Harassment can include derogatory remarks about a person's national origin, accent or ethnicity. While the federal law doesn't protect against simple teasing or isolated incidents, harassment becomes legally actionable when it is so frequent or so severe that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile. The court said Hukman had not demonstrated that the conditions of her employment had changed even though she alleged three offensive comments by co-workers and a petition circulated by a co-worker that she go back to the airport from which she had transferred.
One of the bigger flashpoints around national origin discrimination regards language policies; for example, a Texas spa agreed to pay more than $2.6 million to settle claims it barred staff from speaking Spanish. Such rules are presumed to violate Title VII, the EEOC has said.
The EEOC suggests steps employers can take to prevent workplace harassment, including clearly communicating that harassment based on national origin will not be tolerated, adopting anti-harassment policies and procedures and disciplining employees who violate workplace anti-harassment rules.