UPDATE: This story has been updated with new information — including from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, which found that former employee Sharmin Rahman hadn’t proven discrimination.
A woman of Islamic faith who was hired as a case manager at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare has filed a $1 million lawsuit against her former employer — claiming she was fired after she refused to shake the hand of a male boss, wore a head scarf on the job and asked for time to pray during the work day.
Sharmin Rahman’s lawsuit states that after starting her job on Dec. 1, 2014, she met a senior director, Royce Bowline. When Bowline tried to shake Rahman’s hand, Rahman declined by explaining that her faith prohibited her from shaking the hands of men, according to the lawsuit filed Friday in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
The suit claims that afterward, a female employee, Bethany Kuhn, questioned her about it, allegedly saying, “I was told that you did not shake Royce’s hand. Did you know that he is our boss?”
The suit states that Rahman responded, “Yes, but that does not change things. I can’t shake his hand.”
A spokeswoman for Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
“We strive to treat all employees fairly and equitably,” wrote spokeswoman Samantha Ridderbusch.
The nonprofit employs 900 people in the Portland area and greater Willamette Valley. It offers assistance to about 15,000 people each year who are homeless or have problems with addictions or mental health.
Rahman was born in Bangladesh and her ethnic background is South Asian, according to the suit. She speaks with an accent, but started learning British English when she was in kindergarten. The suit states that she has a master’s degree in social work.
She was fired on April 14, 2015 — and the reason listed was “Inability or Not Qualified,” the suit states. Rahman was given no warnings about her performance and hadn’t been disciplined before her firing, according to the suit.
Among allegedly discriminatory episodes in her 4 ½ months on the job, according to her lawsuit:
- Rahman prayed up to three times during the work day in her locked office, with a sign hanging on the door that read “Do not disturb.” The suit states that although Rahman explained her need to pray, an employee who Rahman supervised interrupted her four times by knocking on her office door and then unlocking the door and entering the office.
- At least twice, Rahman’s supervisor, Elizabeth Miller, asked her about whether the head and neck scarves she wore posed a safety problem because a client could pull on the scarf. Rahman responded by saying no one had touched her scarves before.
- Rahman’s supervisor, Miller, offended her several times by watching her while she ate traditional foods from Bangladesh for lunch, according to the suit. Miller “derisively said ‘what are you eating,'” the suit states.
- Although Rahman wasn’t told her accent was a problem when she was hired, Rahman’s supervisor and another employee, Kuhn, “parroted” the way she spoke English — prompting her to cry, the suit states. Kuhn expressed surprise she went to Portland State University and told her she should go back to school to learn English, according to the suit.
- Miller and Kuhn told Rahman that she wasn’t able to keep up to date with technology because of her age. The suit says the pair “mocked (Rahman) because she typed with her index finger.” According to a report by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, Rahman was approximately 50 years old at the time.
- The suit states that Miller would smoke during “walk-and-talk” meetings, despite Rahman asking her not to and requesting reasonable accommodation for her asthma.
Rahman is claiming not only religious discrimination, but discrimination based on her ethnicity, national origin and disability of asthma.
After her firing, Rahman complained to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries. An investigator there determined in July 2016 that Rahman hadn’t presented enough evidence to prove her case of discrimination based on religion or disability.
According to the investigator’s report, Cascadia said Rahman was having trouble using the organization’s software, wrote poorly constructed sentences and had been put on a “written warning with action plan” less than two months after her hiring.
The investigator also wrote that Cascadia defended itself by saying that Rahman didn’t complain about some alleged incidents, including that she was interrupted during prayer or that her supervisor made a funny face while looking at her lunch.
The suit seeks up to $500,000 in noneconomic for humiliation, anxiety and distress. The suit seeks $500,000 for economic damages that include past and future lost wages and benefits.
Rahman also is seeking her job back.
Portland attorneys Daniel Snyder, Carl Post and John Burgess are representing Rahman.