KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A former Kansas City woman who converted to Islam in 2005 said she was harassed for years at AT&T, and that the abuse boiled over in 2008 when her boss snatched her head scarf and exposed her hair.
A Jackson County jury on Thursday awarded Susann Bashir $5 million in punitive damages in her discrimination lawsuit, along with $120,000 in lost wages and other actual damages.
The Kansas City Star (http://bit.ly/JKWbqR ) reported Saturday the award appears to be the largest jury verdict for a workplace discrimination case in Missouri history.
Bashir said in court documents that her work environment became hostile immediately after she converted, with her co-workers making harassing comments about her religion and referring to her hijab as "that thing on her head."
"I was shocked. I thought, 'What is going on?'" she told the newspaper. "Nobody ever cared what I wore before. Nobody ever cared what religion I was before."
Bashir worked at AT&T's office in Kansas City for 10 years as a fiber optics network builder before being fired from her $70,000-a-year job. She claimed she endured religious discrimination nearly every day of the final three years she worked there, including being asked if she was going to blow up the building and being called a "towelhead" and a terrorist.
AT&T said Friday it disagrees with the verdict and plans to appeal.
Despite the jury's award, Bashir stands to receive much less than $5 million because Missouri law caps such awards at five times the actual damage amount, plus attorney fees.
Amy Coopman, Bashir's lawyer, said attorney fees will be determined later by the judge.
The previous largest such verdict came in 2009, when Mohamed Alhalabi, an Arab-American Muslim, was awarded $811,949 in St. Louis County Circuit Court in a case against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
That same year, a Jonesboro, Ark., jury ordered AT&T to pay $1.3 million to two former employees fired for attending a Jehovah's Witnesses convention.
Bashir said she called an employee help line in March 2005 and asked the company to provide sensitivity training for her co-workers.
"It was a worthless call," she said. "Nothing ever changed."
The harassment continued and in March 2008, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation after she filed a complaint.
She said that made some workers angry and led to the final encounter with her boss.
Bashir said she became so stressed out that she couldn't return to work. She asked that her boss be removed or that she be transferred, but neither happened.
She was fired after not returning to work for nine months.
"By firing me, they stole my ability to work at a job I liked," Bashir said.
She said the incident was hard on her mentally and physically and tore her family apart. She is going through a divorce, and in October she and her daughter moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where she works as an apartment manager.
"I have mixed feelings," Bashir said. "I'm happy not to be reporting to that management structure. But it's hard in this economy to find a job with that level of compensation. I didn't want to lose my job, because I felt I was doing good work."
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com