Judge rules in company's favor, tosses former employee's suit over Vodoo beliefs

Jonathan Bilyk Feb. 26, 2015, 10:09am

A Haitian-American practitioner of the Voodoo religion will not be allowed to continue to press his case for religious discrimination and harassment against his former employer, after a federal judge determined the harassment he suffered for a time at the hands of some of his coworkers did not entitle him to collect from an employer that moved relatively quickly to end the harassment, yet ultimately fired him.

U.S. District Court Judge John J. Tharp Jr. on Feb. 12 ruled in favor of LaGrange-based diesel locomotive and engine maker Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD), granting summary judgment to the company sued by former employee Clifford Harris.

The case centered on complaints Harris filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 and 2011 against EMD.

Harris had worked for EMD since 2006, including some months spent working under supervisors who he said were Christians who would begin work days with a prayer for coworkers willing to participate.

Harris said he also freely discussed his religion, Voodoo – a practice which he said caused coworkers to express “unease.”

Twice, Harris was disciplined for actions he contends had connections to his religion, after coworkers accused him of “blowing Voodoo dust on a supervisor” and “mutter[ing] words perceived by the coworker to be related to Voodoo” when they bumped into each other.

Harris filed a complaint with the EEOC about the incidents in 2010.

About six weeks later, Harris said his locker was twice vandalized with graffiti, including images relating to the occult, demeaning phrases potentially tied to his religion and nationality and the placement of a “fluid-filled condom” on the lock of his locker.

He did not take any action to clean his locker himself, but reported the incident to his supervisor by phone on a Sunday.

By the following Wednesday, the locker had been repainted to remove the graffiti, the condom was removed and EMD had instituted random locker checks, while issuing written warnings to staff promising repercussions for further acts of vandalism.

Two months later, Harris said he was placed under a new male supervisor, who he said sexually harassed him by calling him “sexy” and touching his shoulder. He then filed a sexual harassment complaint with his union.

The next day, he said he told his supervisor he was not available to work overtime that coming Saturday. However, Harris claims his supervisor confused him into signing a document claiming he was available to work.

When Harris did not report for his scheduled Saturday shift, he was disciplined and placed on suspension, as the disciplinary points accrued against him, in addition to other past disciplinary actions, had placed him over the limit for such points allowed.

During his suspension, he filed further EEOC and union complaints for sexual harassment. His union grievance resulted in him being reinstated.

However, he later attempted to take short-term medical leave and when his insurer denied his claims for such leave, he still did not report for work at EMD, and was fired.

Harris then sued, alleging racial and religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation against EMD. He eventually dropped his claims for sexual harassment and racial discrimination, but persisted with his other complaints.

In the recent federal court ruling, Tharp, however, said Harris’ evidence did not amount to enough to conclude a jury might find in his favor.

The judge noted, while Harris was likely subjected to offensive behavior by his coworkers, it was not sufficient to allege discrimination on the part of EMD, which had taken action to end the bad behavior.

Likewise, while one of Harris’ supervisors was a Christian who used the word “devil” and “evil” to refer to Harris’ religion on three occasions from 2007 to 2010, Tharp said Harris overstated claims of discrimination.

“In each of the instances Harris described, Harris acknowledges that (his supervisor) was not speaking to him but to others,” Tharp wrote. “Further, in two of the three comments, even as recounted by Harris, (the supervisor) referred to him only as ‘that devil’ or ‘this devil,’ not as ‘the Devil’ —in other words, in a manner that referred to Harris as a troublemaker rather than as the embodiment of all that is evil.”

Overall, Tharp said the evidence indicates EMD’s reaction to the incidents alleged by Harris was nearly opposite Harris’ description.

“There is no basis in this record to conclude that EMD turned a blind eye toward the incident or failed to take sufficient steps to remedy the problem and to keep it from recurring,” Tharp said in ruling in the company's favor.

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