KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Jackson County jury awarded $5 million in punitive damages Thursday afternoon to a Muslim woman who claims she suffered harassment at her job at Southwestern Bell/AT&T when she converted to Islam.
Susann Bashir sued the company, saying that it was a hostile work environment and says she was retaliated against and lost her job when she filed harassment complaints against managers.
Earlier in the afternoon, the jury decided in favor of Bashir on the hostile work environment charge; but in favor of Southwestern Bell/AT&T on the retaliation charge. Jurors decided Southwestern Bell owed Bashir $120,000 in lost wages and damages. After about two hours of deliberating on the punitive damages, they returned with the decision that Southwestern Bell/AT&T should pay Bashir $5 million.
"I'm very happy with the outcome," Bashir said as she walked out of the courtroom. "I'm very pleased that the jury thought it was worth that much to make a point, that loud of a point to the companies, large corporations about how they treat their employees. I think it spoke loudly and I appreciate that."
Her attorneys, Amy Coopman and Luke Hertenstein also made brief statements.
"I'm just so thankful for their thoughtful decision," Coopman said.
"I think that the jury today sent a very loud message that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in the workplace in this community,"Hertenstein said.
AT& T released a statement late Thursday afternoon.
"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,” it said.
Bashir says while working at Southwestern Bell/AT&T she converted to Islam in 2005. Afterward she says she endured harassing comments from coworkers. Bashir claims some of her colleagues left Bible versus on her desk. Others asked if she was going to blow up the building. Bashir said some would tell her she could hear better without her headscarf on her head. Others, she said, called her a "towel head" and a "terrorist".
Southwestern Bell/AT&T employees testified that the company did receive one complaint from her in 2005 about a religious email being passed around at work and that it had been addressed.
In 2008 Bashir filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint outside the company with other allegations. The EEOC investigated and Bashir ultimately decided to drop the complaint. Bashir said she asked to be transferred to a different department or city, but the company had claimed it would violate union rules.
In 2009 Bashir claims her boss grabbed her by her scarf, nearly pulling it off. She says she was so stressed about the incident she could not return to work unless her manager was removed or she was transferred. However, no action was taken. When Bashir failed to return to work after nine months, she was terminated.
The lawyer for Southwestern Bell, Brian Woolley, says the managers involved deny the accusations and question why Bashir made no other calls to the employee hotline about her complaints other than the initial call in 2005. Woolley questioned Bashir's therapist about whether she is paranoid and suffers from feelings of persecution even over minor slights.
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