Appeals Court Reinstates Houston Muslim Car Salesman's Discrimination Claims

August 14, 2007 ( - The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out a lower court ruling in a case involving a Muslim car dealership employee in Houston who claimed he was harassed and fired on the basis of religion, saying the lower court used the wrong standards in dismissing the discrimination lawsuit.

After the U.S. embarked on military action against Afghanistan in 2001, Mohommed Rafiq, a car salesman at Streater-Smith Honda, Inc., said his superiors began referring to him as “Taliban” when they saw him. Rafiq said his managers ignored his repeated requests to stop referring to him that way, according to the suit.

The lawsuit said a company manager and co-workers also harassed Rafiq with questions such as: “Why don’t you just go back to where you came from since you believe what you believe?” They mocked his religious dietary restrictions and his need to pray during the workday. One of his supervisors also played a “Taliban” joke over the loudspeaker on the sales floor.

On October 16, 2002, Rafiq got into a dispute with his manager after his manager told him that it was mandatory for all employees to attend a United Way meeting. When Rafiq asked what the meeting had to do with his job, his manager replied, according to the suit: “This is not the Islamic country where you come from.” After the confrontation, his manager Jerry Swigart issued Rafiq a written warning, which stated that Rafiq “was acting like a Muslim extremist” and that he could not work with Rafiq because of his “militant stance.”

After an altercation in 2002 between Rafiq and a finance manager, Rafiq complained to the general manager of the dealership. Two days later, he was fired. Rafiq then filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in August 2003.

The EEOC filed suit against Streater-Smith on Rafiq’s behalf , claiming the dealership subjected Rafiq to a hostile work environment. However, the district court rejected the claim on grounds that:

  • Rafiq’s EEOC charge was untimely;
  • There was not enough evidence of severe and pervasive harassment;
  • The agency could not establish that Rafiq was harassed on the basis of his national origin; and
  • The EEOC had not shown that Rafiq’s emotional distress or mental anguish from the harassment was so severe that it interrupted his daily life.

However, the appeals court said that Rafiq had met the requirement that a complaint must be filed no more than 300 days after the alleged harassment. The court also disagreed with the district court’s finding that the harassment could not be traced to Rafiq’s national origin. According to the ruling, although Rafiq’s superior didn’t specifically refer to Rafiq’s national origin during a particular incident, his superior established a “pattern of harassment based explicitly on religion and national origin.”

The appellate court also said that the district court erred when it said the harassment was not so severe as to interrupt Rafiq’s daily life.

Appellate judges reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Streater-Smith and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.