‘Onionhead’ Litigation Heads Toward Jury Trial

‘Harnessing Happiness’ program may have been unlawful religious discrimination

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. December 7, 2017
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‘Onionhead’ Litigation Heads Toward Jury Trial

​A jury will decide next year if employees of United Health Programs of America were discriminated against for rejecting "Onionhead," a program designed to try to improve the corporate culture.

Chinyere Ezie, trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), filed a letter on Dec. 1 to Judge Kiyo Matsumoto in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, saying the plaintiffs are available for trial on both sets of dates the court proposed—April 2-27, 2018, and May 14-June 1, 2018.

The Onionhead belief system—also referred to as "Harnessing Happiness"—is based on an "incredibly pure, wise and adorable" cartoon character who "wants everyone to know how they feel and then know what to do with those feelings," according to Greg Watchman, managing associate general counsel with Freddie Mac, headquartered in McLean, Va.

Onionhead's motto is: "Peel it—feel it—heal it."

A federal judge in September 2016 ruled that Onionhead arguably constitutes a religion and denied the company's summary judgment motions on the reverse religious discrimination claims. Several claimants contended that they were fired for opposing Onionhead beliefs. All claimants said that they were harassed by those who tried to make them follow Onionhead practices as a condition of employment.

Brainchild of the CEO's Aunt

The Onionhead belief system—created by the aunt of the company's CEO—relies on conflict resolution tools designed to transform negative thoughts into positive ones, said Darren Nadel, an attorney with Littler in Denver.

Employees were encouraged to chant, as well as hug, hold hands with and kiss co-workers. Onionhead documents and workshop materials, in addition to pins, dictionaries, journals and magnets, sometimes feature images of an anthropomorphic onion.

A document widely used in the belief system is the "Declaration of Virtues for Empowerment," which consists of 12 virtues. "If you take the first letter of each virtue, the first letters spell 'Garden of Eden,' " Nadel noted. "There are other documents that help explain how to improve your outlook from within to reach heaven."

Angry Demons

The company used the belief system from 2007 to 2012 and allegedly discriminated against employees who objected to it. The CEO's aunt conducted workshops and one-on-one meetings about Onionhead and was referred to as a spiritual advisor. She spoke of demons and angels being in the workplace and used sage, incense and candles to cleanse the workplace of evil spirits, according to one claimant.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

Two employees said that they were moved from a private office that they shared to an open space called "the pit" where they would work with nine other employees taking customer service calls. When they moved, the aunt allegedly was staring at them and yelling, "the demons must be so angry right now" and "all the demons are going to get out of here and we're going to win." It wasn't clear whether she was referring to the workers as demons or was talking about demons more generally. She had allegedly referred to demons in other contexts—once saying that "the demon is fighting for control" of the company and urging the ousting of the CEO, but also referring to demons as entering the facility when overhead lighting was on.

Melissa Osipoff, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in New York City, explained the court's finding that Onionhead arguably is a religion:

  • E-mail discussions of Onionhead reflected references to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, divine destinies, miracles, higher-guidance teachers and a grail.
  • Employees were told to pray in the workplace.
  • Onionhead literature had numerous references to religion and spirituality.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has long rejected a narrow definition of what constitutes a religious belief, she said.

Say 'I Love You' or Else

"The religious aspects of Onionhead and forcing employees to say 'I love you' to co-workers could stifle individuality and autonomy, which could negatively impact the corporate culture," noted Nathaniel Glasser, an attorney with Epstein Becker & Green in Washington, D.C.

The term "religion" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is broadly defined to include moral and ethical beliefs, he said. "This means that, like Onionhead, covered religions do not have to be organized religions. Nor do the tenets have to be logical or coherent. In fact, a single employee may be the only person in the world who holds certain beliefs, but as long as they are sincerely held and meaningful, those beliefs may constitute a religion under Title VII."

But there are limitations, he added. Title VII does not cover personal preferences or cultural, political or ideological preferences.

The company denied that it discriminated against employees who objected to Onionhead and said that the claimants, who either were terminated or resigned, were not qualified for their jobs, according to the September 2016 decision.

 

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