BY: Tad T. Roumayah | IN: Employment Law
A Michigan jury recently awarded a former Ford employee $16.8 million for his lawsuit against the automaker that alleged he faced discrimination on the job because he is of Arab descent. After hearing 11 days of testimony and evidence, the jury found the former Ford engineer, Faisal G. Khalaf, endured a hostile work environment because of his background and accent, and that he was retaliated against and wrongfully terminated when he brought the problem to management’s attention.
During the trial, the jury heard testimony that Khalaf, who was born in Lebanon, received shocking treatment from two supervisors, Bennie Fowler and Jah Zhou. Both men regularly criticized him for his English. According to Khalaf’s lawyer, one of his supervisors would “literally pound his fist on a table” and yell at Khalaf.
The problems began almost immediately after Khalaf, who had been with the automaker since 1999, was assigned to work under Fowler’s supervision in 2012. Six months before the transfer, Khalaf had received a “top achiever” performance rating. The lawsuit alleged that Fowler, however, regularly and frequently criticized Khalaf’s ability to speak and understand English, gave him “demeaning” and “servile” tasks and set “unrealistic work goals.” In one instance recounted for the jury, Fowler tried to send Khalaf, an experienced engineer, out of a meeting to fetch coffee.
The situation allegedly worsened after Khalaf advised one of his direct reports to go to Human Resources (HR) with a sexual harassment complaint. Directly after that happened, Fowler demoted Khalaf and gave him new work goals. Then Zhou joined the team in 2013 and treated Khalaf in the same discriminatory manner as Fowler.
Khalaf allegedly endured this treatment for more than a year and then went to HR. His lawsuit alleged that, rather than address the problem, Ford HR put him on a retaliatory performance enhancement plan that included a recommendation from Zhou that he enroll in an English as a Second Language class.
Ultimately, Khalaf was forced to go on medical leave due to workplace stress and then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Michigan Department of Civil Rights in 2015. When he tried to return to work, Ford placed him on unpaid leave and gave him a “no job available” status. He was officially terminated in September 2015.
Because Khalaf’s lawsuit was filed under a Michigan statute that provides for unlimited punitive damages against employers who engage in discriminatory practices, the jury was free to send a message to Ford – and it did. The $16.8 million awarded to Khalaf was made up of $15 million in punitive damages, $1.7 million in retirement and pension losses and $100,000 for emotional distress.
Both federal and state laws protect Michigan workers from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. As seen in the Ford case, employers, in some circumstances, can receive harsh monetary penalties for allowing egregious discrimination and harassment to happen. The reason the jury was so hard on Ford is likely due to the extent of the abuse Khalaf was subjected to, and the retaliation he faced when he reported the issue to HR.
Some companies only take notice of a problem when it has the potential to cost them a significant amount of money. If you think you have been discriminated against by your employer or suffer through a hostile work environment, you may have grounds for an employment lawsuit. Please contact us today and a member of our Employment Litigation Group will be happy to discuss your situation.
View all posts byTad T. Roumayah
Tad Roumayah focuses his practice primarily on employment litigation, representing employees who have encountered discrimination, retaliation, wrongful discharge, whistleblower protection claims, wage and hour violations and other employment issues and disputes.