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Ninth Circuit Court Holds that Refusing to Address an Employee by His Arabic Name, in Favor of a “Western” Name, Created a Hostile Work Environment

Volume 4, Issue 9
July 29, 2005

Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a manager's repeatedly calling the employee - over his objections - "Manny," rather than his Arabic name "Mamdouh," created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The supervisor believed use of a "Western" name would be easier to pronounce and more acceptable in business, particularly to customers, than using plaintiff's Arabic name. Plaintiff protested this. While noting that use of the name "Manny" is not a "racial epithet," the Court held that "[a] group's ethnic characteristics encompasses more than its members' skin color and physical traits. Names are often a proxy for race and ethnicity." Refusal to use the plaintiff's name, in favor of a "Western" name, the court held, was the same as using a racial epithet in this context. Hakem v. BJY, Inc., -- F. 3d --, No. 03-35514, 2005 WL 1692470 (9th Cir. July 21, 2005).

Of even more concern to employers should be the second holding of the court, dealing with the legal threshold for whether a "hostile work environment" existed based upon use of the "Manny" name. This occurred once in a marketing meeting, then in an email in which the plaintiff proposed the manager use his last name, "Hakem," if it was easier to pronounce; the supervisor then called him "Hank." Thereafter, the supervisor addressed plaintiff as "Manny" once per week for two months in the Monday marketing meetings, and in emails twice a month for almost a year. The court held this was sufficiently "pervasive" to create a hostile work environment.

This later holding demonstrates, at least with regard to racial/ethnic terms, the threshold of "seriousness" or "pervasiveness" may not be very high. Thus, this sort of conduct should be addressed the same as any other type of harassment - a prompt and full investigation and appropriate corrective action.

The full decision of the Ninth Circuit Court in Hakem v. BJY, Inc. is available at:

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data2/circs/9th/0335514p.pdf

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