Sikh Employee Was Harassed by Managers and Customers, Barred From Wearing Turban at Work, Then Fired Over Religion, Federal Agency Charged
BOSTON – AutoZone, Inc., a Fortune 500 distributor and retailer of automobile parts, will pay $75,000 plus attorneys’ fees and provide other nationwide relief to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency announced today. The EEOC’s lawsuit, filed in September 2010, charged that AutoZone violated federal law when it subjected Frank Mahoney Burroughs, an employee who had converted to the Sikh religion, to harassment and refused to accommodate his religious need to wear a turban.
According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Massachusetts in Boston (Civil Action No. 1:10-cv-11648), AutoZone managers at its Everett, Mass., location harassed Mahoney Burroughs by disparaging his religion, asking if he had joined Al-Qaeda and whether he was a terrorist. AutoZone also failed to intervene when customers referred to him as “Bin Laden” and made terrorist jokes. The EEOC also charged that AutoZone refused to let Mahoney Burroughs wear a religiously mandated turban and kara (a religious bracelet). Finally, the EEOC alleged that AutoZone terminated him because of his religion and in retaliation for asking for an accommodation and complaining about discrimination.
Religious harassment and discrimination, as well as retaliation for complaining about them, violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
On Jan. 11, Judge William Young decided in favor of the EEOC on its claim that AutoZone had failed to accommodate Mahoney Burroughs’ need to wear a turban. Rather than take the remaining issues to trial, AutoZone entered into a nationwide consent decree, which was entered by Judge Young today.
In addition to the monetary relief, the decree requires AutoZone to adopt a policy prohibiting religious discrimination; train its managers and human resource employees on religious discrimination and the new policy; report to the EEOC on its handling of all requests for religious accommodation and complaints of religious harassment; distribute the new policy; and a notice regarding the consent decree to its 65,000 employees in more than 4,500 U.S. stores.
“It is plainly unlawful as well as cruel and counter-productive to harass employees or co-workers because of their religion,” said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney for the EEOC’s New York District Office, which has jurisdiction over Massachusetts. “Employers must be vigilant in watching out for such misconduct and resolute in stopping it if they find it.”
Markus L. Penzel, senior trial attorney for the EEOC, added, “We are pleased that AutoZone, through this decree, has agreed to take the steps necessary to reform its handling of religious accommodation issues and to ensure that what happened to Mr. Mahoney Burroughs will not happen to any other employees.”
Frank Mahoney Burroughs intervened in the lawsuit and was represented by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association and the Sikh Coalition.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the Commission is available on the agency's web site at www.eeoc.gov.