October 1995

Workplace Labor Update - Iranian Protected from Origin Harassment – October 1995

3 min

An employee of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BG& E) had adequately stated a claim of harassment and forced resignation to proceed to trial, ruled the federal court of appeals with jurisdiction over Maryland. Amirmokri v. Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 60 F.3d 1126 (4th Cir. 1995).

Homi Amirmokri was hired as an engineer in 1989, expecting to be promoted to a senior engineering position within six months. When that position was awarded to another individual, Amirmokri went to management for an explanation and also to complain about harassive treatment by his supervisor. Specifically, he claimed his supervisor was making derogatory references based upon his Iranian national origin, including calling him “the local terrorist,” a “camel jockey,” “the ayatollah,” and “the emir of Waldorf” (Amirmokri lived in Waldorf, Maryland).

Management conducted an initial investigation of the harassment claims, but couldn’t substantiate Amirmokri’s charges. Over the next few months, Amirmokri claimed the harassment continued. He also asserted that his physician advised him that he was developing an ulcer due to work-related stress, and that he should quit his job if the harassment did not end.

In response to Amirmokri’s continuing complaints, a BG& E vice-president said he would investigate the claims, and referred Amirmokri to BG& E’s clinical psychologist. Subsequently, Amirmokri received a critical performance evaluation from his supervisor. A few days later, management told Amirmokri that no discrimination had occurred, and they would not discuss the subject further. Finally, in November 1990 Amirmokri resigned.

Amirmokri sued BG& E, claiming he had been harassed based upon his national origin and that the harassment was so severe that he was forced to resign from his engineering position. The trial court dismissed Amirmokri’s lawsuit and Amirmokri appealed that decision.

The appeals court reversed, ruling that Amirmokri had presented sufficient evidence of harassment to proceed to trial, and that the company’s response to that harassment may have been inadequate. The appeals court found that Amirmokri had produced sufficient evidence to show that “severe and pervasive” harassment may have occurred, because the alleged derogatory remarks were offensive, and continued for six months on a daily basis. Also, BG& E’s response may have been insufficient, stated the court, noting there was significant doubt about the depth of their investigation, and what warnings or counseling were given to the supervisor.

As for Amirmokri’s claim that he was forced to resign, the appeals court found he had presented sufficient evidence that his workplace conditions were “intolerable.” The plaintiff’s testimony of almost daily epithets and a stress-related ulcer could provide enough evidence for a jury to conclude Amirmokri had no choice but to quit, according to the appeals court. Furthermore, the court ruled that since BG& E’s response to the harassment might be considered cursory, a jury could find that the company deliberately sought to force Amirmokri to resign.

The lesson from this case should be clear to employers: derogatory comments about a person’s national origin (or race, sex, religion, or disability for that matter) may give rise to claims of harassment, which must be thoroughly investigated and addressed by management in order to avoid a trial on the sufficiency of the company’s actions. Further, where the employee suffers physical illness from such harassment, a resignation will not immunize the employer from justifying its actions. Finally, employers should note that such harassment occurring after the enactment of the 1991 Civil Rights Act can give rise to substantial money damages.