Articles Posted in National Origin Discrimination

Last month New York City took action to combat an often-overlooked form of race discrimination involving employee’s hair.  In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission”) published new guidance that explains that employers (as well as housing providers and providers of public accommodations) can no longer institute policies or practices that discriminate against people on the basis of their natural hair texture or their choice to wear a hairstyle commonly associated with African Americans, such as an afro or dreadlocks.  According to this new guidance, the Commission views such policies and practices as violative of the New York City Human Rights Law (the “NYCHRL”), announcing that in the Commission’s view, “Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity.

Discrimination based on hairstyles is an issue that courts across the country have grappled with over the years, with generally employer-friendly results. Courts have been fairly consistent in finding that where a person’s hairstyle is tied to their faith, employers cannot restrict their right to express their faith through their chosen hairstyle. On the other hand, where the person’s hairstyle is tied to their cultural identity and heritage, courts have not been so kind.  For the most part, if an employer implemented a race-neutral policy banning hairstyles associated with Black people, courts have not found discrimination. Similarly, race-neutral policies restricting “unkempt” or “messy” hairstyles have generally gained approval from the courts.

For the most part, in order to prevail, a plaintiff had to show that they were specifically targeted in some way, or that the employer’s policy was not applied neutrally.  In other words, employees had to demonstrate that the employer’s defense – that the employee failed to comply with a race-neutral employee grooming policy – was pretextual and that the employer’s true motive was discriminatory.  Proving pretext can be extremely difficult, which explains why most employers have succeeded when their grooming policies have been challenged as racially discriminatory.

Over the weekend, German Soccer Star, Mesut Ozil, retired from the German National Team following what he claimed to be rampant racist remarks and mistreatment based on his Turkish heritage, according to the BBC. The German Football Association, “DFB”, denies accusations of maintaining a hostile and discriminatory work environment for athletes of foreign descent. Ozil’s allegations align with experiences of other World Cup athletes who claim that they’ve been victims of racially hostile treatment based on their national origin.

The FIFA World Cup of soccer took over the international sports stage this summer and served to shed light on issues of discrimination worldwide. Though athletes were required to be citizens of the countries that they played for in the tournament, many players identified as immigrants to these nations, or shared heritage with other countries as well. A common experience of these dual-citizenship or immigrant athletes was to feel as though their fans accepted them as fellow citizens only when their team won; after a loss, the “foreign” athletes were treated as undesirable outsiders. This sentiment would manifest in hate mail, racist or discriminatory statements, and the reception of undue blame for their team’s poor performance.

Along these lines, Mesut Ozil claims he was discriminated against, singled out and scapegoated for Germany’s failure to advance past the group stages in the World Cup this year. Ozil, who is of Turkish descent, claims that he received racially harassing hate mail and was unfairly blamed for Germany’s poor World Cup performance.  Earlier this year, Ozil posted a photograph featuring himself alongside the President of Turkey after a friendly, soccer related meeting. Ozil was immediately criticized by DFB officials and fans who questioned his loyalty to democratic values.  Ozil was also abandoned by partners and sponsors and denounced by DFB officials such as Reinhard Grindel for the photograph and meeting. Fans referred to him as a “Turkish pig” and German media outlets openly blamed his Turkish heritage and meeting with Erdogan for Germany’s losses in the World Cup.

Rutgers University terminated its basketball coach in the wake of ESPN’s broadcast of a videotape showing him physically and verbally abusing players during practice. Public opinion seems nearly unanimous that Mike Rice’s conduct warranted his termination, but the question remains did he create an unlawful hostile work environment under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination?

New Jersey has some of the strictest anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws in the United States. Most notably, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination outlaws unlawful employment discrimination against any person on the basis of protected characteristics, which includes sex, sexual orientation, national origin and others. In 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case called L.W. v. Toms River Regional Board of Education, 189 N.J. 381 (2007) extended the workplace protections provided under Law Against Discrimination to situations where schools fail to stop severe and pervasive bullying based upon protected characteristics such as sex, sexual orientation and national origin. This means that if a school permits severe and pervasive harassment based upon a protected characteristic, the school can be found liable. Moreover, if the school knows or should know of the existence of unlawful discrimination or harassment, the law requires that the school investigate, remediate and prevent it from happening again.

The video shown by ESPN of several Rutgers basketball practices reveals numerous incidents of Mike Rice pushing, kicking and throwing basketball balls at players. It also depicts Mike Rice yelling gay slurs at players calling them “faggots” and other inappropriate comments. ESPN has also reported that Mike Rice regularly called one of his former players who transferred to Rhode Island, Gilvydas Biruta, names relating to his national origin of Lithuania and gay slurs. Former Rutgers assistant coach, Eric Murdock, who is anticipated to file a lawsuit against Rutgers for unlawful retaliation and wrongful termination, has alleged that Mike Rice would constantly scream at Mr. Biruta by using his national origin and gay slurs. For example, Mr. Murdock says that Mike Rice called Mr. Biruta a “soft-ass Lithuanian bitch,’ ‘soft-ass Lithuanian pussy’ and ‘Lithuanian faggot.'” Mr. Biruta told ESPN that he took offense to Rice’s name calling and insults stating, “If you’re going to criticize me as a basketball player, I’m OK with that,” he said, “but he would criticize me as a person.” Mr. Biruta also told ESPN that the main reason he transferred was because of Mike Rice’s treatment of him.