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A few months ago, the EEOC issued guidelines reflecting the rising concern over national origin discrimination after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York. A recent case from the U.S. District Court of Connecticut illustrates that while there is concern over inappropriate comments in the workplace towards those of Arab descent, a single comment will not be sufficient to prove national origin discrimination. Albert Hanna is a U.S. citizen who was born in Egypt. He was hired by InfoTech Contract Services to provide computer support to its client, Pfizer. His duties required that he visit Pfizer employees at their workstations in order to answer their questions and fix problems with their computers. Hanna was considered by both Pfizer and InfoTech to be a “fine technician” and he worked at Pfizer for roughly 18 months without any negative feedback. In early 2000, however, Pfizer began to receive complaints about Hanna from numerous women, who claimed that he made them “uncomfortable.” According to one woman, Hanna had asked her to dinner, lingered around her work area after hours and became rude when his advances were rejected. Hanna was reassigned to a different work area based upon this one complaint. COMPLAINTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT This one complaint also prompted a broader investigation into Hanna’s behavior. In particular, a Human Resources employee at Pfizer recalled that another woman had asked that she be notified when Hanna left the building at night. In light of the first complaint about Hanna, HR inquired as to the basis for this request. It turned out that this woman, too, was made uncomfortable by Hanna and his workplace behavior. Shortly after this second “concern,” other women came forward to express similar reservations about Hanna’s workplace behavior. In short order, Pfizer asked InfoTech to remove Hanna from its account. InfoTech agreed and took the additional step of firing Hanna. ‘ARABS ARE TERRORISTS’ Hanna brought suit against both InfoTech and Pfizer, making various state and federal claims, including national origin discrimination. This claim was based upon an incident in the summer of 1999 (approximately eight months before his termination) when Hanna made a service call upon Pfizer secretary, Glenda Bryant. Hanna claimed that during the call, Bryant inquired into his national origin and ethnicity and, upon learning that he was of Egyptian origin, said that she was not comfortable dealing with Arabs because “Arabs are terrorists and should not be allowed into the country.” Hanna claimed that Bryant later told other employees that Hanna was a security risk. The defendants moved for summary judgment, putting forth the allegations of sexual harassment as the “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for Hanna’s termination. Pfizer “documented its investigation and … provided ample evidence of the complaints against Hanna.” NO EVIDENCE OF CONSPIRACY Hanna responded with his theory that Bryant, admittedly a non-supervisory employee, “hatched a conspiracy to fabricate sexual harassment claims against him because of his ethnic background or national origin” (note to plaintiffs: judges and juries tend not to believe “conspiracy theories” and anytime that word is used in an opinion, it is never good news for the plaintiff). The court found that the only evidence of national origin animus was Bryant’s alleged comment regarding Arabs as terrorists. Even if this were true, “this alone would not be sufficient to prove that InfoTech fired Hanna because of his ethnicity or race.” This single conversation, by a secretary with no supervisory authority, simply was not enough to prove that InfoTech acted improperly. Further, the fact that Bryant knew and had dinner with some of the women who complained about Hanna did not evidence a conspiracy-in-the-making. Nor did Hanna’s denials that he had engaged in the harassing conduct carry weight. The court found that “Hanna has not provided any evidence, other than his own denials, that [his accusers'] claims are false.” The message of the Hanna case is, obviously, not one of encouraging broad characterizations of any ethnic group. Rather, even assuming that the statement was made, it needs to be considered in the context of who made it and how that person has the ability to influence the company’s thinking. Bryant, as a secretary, had no decision-making capability over Hanna’s employment. Significantly, she never complained about Hanna’s behavior. That Bryant was friendly with some of those who complained about Hanna did not evidence a conspiracy to undermine his employment. Sidney R. Steinberg is a shareholder in the business law and litigation department of Post & Schell, (www.postschell.com). He concentrates his national litigation and consulting practice in the field of employment and employee relations law and may be reached at [email protected].

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