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Armenian police officer awarded damages for discrimination
Myths about national origin discrimination in the workplace abound, and it can fall to HR professionals to dispel the misconceptions, which can lead to costly legal claims.
A recent national origin discrimination case before the California Court of Appeal resulted in $150,000 in compensatory damages, $719,528 in attorney fees and $20,085 in costs against the city of Burbank.
"In an increasingly ethnically diverse workplace, addressing national origin discrimination in the workplace can present HR professionals with unique challenges," said Mark Fijman, an attorney with Phelps Dunbar in Jackson, Miss. "Proper training of management and employees, clear and consistently enforced anti-discrimination policies, and an effective system of reporting and responding to such claims are the best ways to address and eliminate any instances of national origin discrimination in your workplace."
Officer Was Harassed
Steve Karagiosian, a police officer of Armenian descent who worked for Burbank, Calif., testified that beginning in July 2004, other police officers harassed him about his national origin. Officers allegedly would repeatedly mimic Armenians' accents and make disparaging comments about Armenians, referring to them as "towel heads."
When Armenian suspects were arrested, one officer sometimes would say to Karagiosian, "I arrested your mother," "I arrested your father" or "I arrested your grandfather." Once, when the officer made the last comment, another officer said, "Yeah, and he stinks."
In the summer of 2005, Karagiosian received by e-mail a video making fun of Armenians. He alerted a lieutenant and others in the department about the video, but no investigation was conducted.
The harassment continued with his work mailbox being filled with Armenian cultural artifacts, such as Armenian flags, CDs of Armenian singers and small boxing gloves with the Armenian flag on them. He did not report these incidents for fear of retaliation. The mimicking still went on, as well as police officers making disparaging comments about Armenians they interviewed at crime scenes.
Finally, in March 2008, someone sent the chief of police an anonymous letter complaining about a hostile work environment. One officer was investigated. Everyone in the Burbank Police Department was ordered to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and attend a four-hour cultural sensitivity training session. But those identified by Karagiosian as needing more training did not receive additional instruction.
An outside attorney conducted an investigation following receipt of the letter. There had been a lull in the harassment but it resumed soon after an investigation in March 2008, culminating in particularly egregious harassment in February 2009. Officers again mimicked Armenians' accents and one officer said about a murder that there was "no human involved" when the victim was an Armenian.
Then, other officers showed Karagiosian a whiteboard on which three stereotypical Armenian statements were written: "My friend … 100 percent"; "I tell you everything … 100 percent"; and "Sir, please, I beg you no problem." He reported the incident to his supervisor and said that he thought the incident should be investigated but the chief of police disagreed.
Karagiosian filed a complaint, alleging that the city had violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act for discriminating based on Armenian national origin. In the case before the state Superior Court, a jury agreed and awarded compensatory damages; the Superior Court also awarded attorney fees.
On appeal to the California Court of Appeal, the city argued that it had no way to know of the harassment before the anonymous letter, but the court disagreed in a Dec. 22, 2016, ruling, noting that Karagiosian had alerted a lieutenant and others to the video.
The court did not accept the city's argument that the use of vulgar language when referring to suspects is a "natural element" of police work. It also rejected the city's assertion that the complaint was brought too late to satisfy the state's statute of limitations.
This case is Karagiosian v. Burbank Police Department, B243622 (Calif. Ct. App. 2016).
Common National Origin Discimination Myths
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: National Origin Discrimination: Can we require that employees speak only English in the workplace?]
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