Mustafa Rehmani, a Muslim born in Pakistan, worked as a System Test Engineer for Ericsson. In November of 2009, Rehmani was suspected of sending an email to a number of Ericsson employees, using one of his Indian co-worker's names. The email contained a spreadsheet of confidential salary information. Rehmani was also suspected of sending an email to an Ericsson customer disparaging the Ericsson management team. Rehmani was terminated on November 13, 2009, after he admitted to sending the prohibited emails under his co-worker's name.
A few days before Rehmani admitted to this misconduct, he reported to HR that he had been experiencing harassment from several of his Indian colleagues. He also complained that he had been subject to "salary and promotion discrimination" as compared to his Indian colleagues.
After his termination, Rehmani filed a complaint against Ericsson alleging that he was harassed and discriminated against based on his national origin and religion due to Ericsson's failure to promote him, and that he was terminated in retaliation for making a harassment and discrimination complaint. Rehmani also alleged causes of action for failure to investigate and prevent discrimination and retaliation, and wrongful termination.
Rehmani based his claims upon allegations that three of his Indian colleagues were frequently rude, dismissive, and hostile towards him because of his national origin and religion. Rehmani cited his colleagues' unwillingness to help him with projects and alleged that the harassment became increasingly more severe and pervasive following the November 2008 attacks in India by Pakistani terrorists. Rehmani alleged that his colleagues made the following statements to or about him: (1) "Pakistan and Afghanistan need[ed] to be bombed and wiped out because of all the terrorist activity there and because it was spreading to India"; (2) "You're not going to blow me up, right?"; (3) "What is going on in Pakistan? It is a messed up country and it is creating a mess in the region and in India". In addition, on September 11, 2009, Rehmani was out of the office, and one of his Indian colleagues joked that Rehmani was out "celebrating 9/11 and planning terrorist attacks." Rehmani further alleged one his Indian colleagues instigated sending out an email on 9/11 stating it was Rehmani's birthday, when it was not. Rehmani asserted that he had reported all of these incidents to his supervisor who allegedly told Rehmani that she did not want to hear his complaints.
The trial court granted summary adjudication to Ericsson on Rehmani's causes of action for national origin and religion harassment on the basis that the alleged conduct was not severe or pervasive. The Court of Appeal reversed. The Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that Rehmani was harassed on account of his religion and/or national origin and that his complaints to his supervisor were sufficient to trigger an investigation into harassment. The Court found that rather than presenting only isolated incidents of harassment, Rehmani offered evidence of a pattern of harassment whereby he alleged he was subject to ongoing rudeness, taunting, and intimidation from Indian co-workers. The Court further noted that though Rehmani's claim of harassment based on religion may be weak, "considering the tension between Muslim and non-Muslims and that factor's interaction with relations between various countries, such as Pakistan and India", the claim was sufficient to withstand summary judgment.
LCW Practice Pointer:
Public entities usually have "zero tolerance" non-harassment policies that prohibit employees from engaging in any improper conduct, not just conduct that is so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile environment. While sexual harassment is usually the most prevalent type of harassment, this case illustrates that harassment can also include offensive conduct related to religion and national origin. Given recent political and historical events, national origin and/or religion harassment is not uncommon and supervisors must be sensitive to all forms of harassment. Anytime a complaint of harassment is received, either formally or informally, the agency must conduct an investigation. This is true even where the complaint appears to have no merit whatsoever. An investigation may also be triggered by the following:
When a person, other than the aggrieved person, complains about harassment; When someone indicates that inappropriate conduct is occurring, even if the word "harassment" is not used; When a supervisor personally observes inappropriate conduct or language, or has general knowledge of a potentially hostile work environment. In this situation, the supervisor must request that any inappropriate conduct cease and that an investigation be conducted.
Rehmani v. Superior Court, --- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, 2012 WL 1034533.