A Kansas City, Missouri, jury has awarded a Muslim woman who alleged she was discriminated against at work $120,000 in lost wages and $5 million in punitive damages.
Susann Bashir, who had worked for the Southwestern Bell unit of Dallas-based AT&T Corp. for more than 10 years, began to encounter discrimination after she converted to the Muslim faith in 2005. The discrimination included co-workers asking her if she was going to blow up the building and calling her a "towelhead" and a "terrorist."
Bashir's attorney could not be reached for comment.
In a statement, an AT&T spokesman said, "AT&T is a nationally recognized leader in workforce diversity and inclusion, something in which we take great pride. We disagree with the verdict and plan to appeal."
Commenting on last week's jury award, Richard B. Cohen, a partner with law firm Fox Rothschild L.L.P. in New York, pointed to Equal Opportunity Commission data that says religious discrimination claims filed with the agency during fiscal 2011 increased 9.5 percent from the previous year.
Comments of the type Bashir cited are typical of other Muslims' experience and "emblematic of a disturbing trend around the U.S.," Cohen said. "On the other hand, the fact that a jury in Missouri rendered a verdict of $5 million in punitive damages," which is greater than Missouri's punitive damages limit of five times compensatory damages, could be an indication that "perhaps the pendulum is swinging the other way, and maybe this means people are starting to become less likely to tolerate acts of overt bigotry."
Employers must make sure their employees, including line workers as well as supervisory staff, are "trained carefully in anti-harassment measures and policy," he said. "Make sure you have a zero tolerance policy for just any sort of discrimination or harassment."