A Cook County judge has ordered a Chicago dentist to pay an ex-employee, who is a Muslim woman, and her attorneys a combined sum of nearly $30,000, after the judge found the Chicago Council on Human Relations was correct to find the dentist had improperly ordered her to remove her hijab head covering while at work.
On Jan. 19, Cook County Judge Rodolfo Garcia ruled in favor of the Chicago commission, and against Dr. Dhiraj Sharma, who had asked the judge to vacate the commission’s findings the dentist had discriminated against the woman.
The case had landed in Cook County Circuit Court in January 2016, when Sharma, owner of American Dental Associates in Chicago, had asked the judge to intervene in his dispute with the Chicago Human Rights Commission.
Sharma had claimed the Commission didn’t properly allow him to defend himself against the accusations leveled by his ex-employee, identified in the court documents as Mirta Barrera.
According to the court documents, Barrera, a Muslim of Hispanic descent, was hired on Jan. 25, 2013, the day she applied for a job as a dental assistant at Sharma’s practice. However, Barrera alleged, five days later, Sharma asked her not to wear her hijab to work, claiming the hijab “would ‘make patients uncomfortable.’” Barrera leveled her accusations against Sharma in a complaint filed with the Chicago Commission in September 2013.
Barrera further alleged Sharma asked her to “keep (her) religion at home.”
Court documents indicated Barrera said she did not wear her hijab at work against until a week before she was fired on March 20, 2013.
In his complaint, Sharma said he presented a different account of the interaction, alleging Barrera initiated the hijab conversation several weeks after she was hired. He also said Barrera began wearing the hijab “mere days” after their conversation.
In August 2015, the Commission delivered a final order against Sharma. While the hearing officer found Barrera was not fired “as a result of discriminatory animus,” the hearing officer sided with Barrera.
Sharma asked the court to reverse the commission’s decision.
However, in his Jan. 19 order, Judge Garcia sided with the Commission, backing the board’s finding of liability against Sharma. Further, the judge backed the Commission’s ruling ordering Sharma to pay a fine of $1,000, plus interest; “emotional damages” of $7,000, plus interest; and Barrera’s legal fees, totaling $22,416.
The judge, however, reversed the Commission’s order requiring Sharma to pay an additional $5,000 in punitive damages.
The judge said the order was appealable.
Sharma was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Trivedi & Khan LLP, of Chicago.
Barrera was represented by attorney Phillip J. Robertson, of Lake in the Hills. The Chicago Commission on Human Relations was represented by attorneys with the city of Chicago Department of Law.