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Defense claimed plaintiff participated in jocular behavior

Type:

Verdict-Defendant

State:

Florida

Venue:

Federal

Court:

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando

Injury Type(s):

mental/psychological-emotional distress

Case Type:

Civil Rights – Title VII; Employment – Retaliation; Civil Rights – 42 USC 1981; Employment – Workplace Harassment, Wrongful Termination, Hostile Work Environment, Religious Discrimination; Civil Rights – Civil Rights Act of 1964; Employment – National Origin Discrimination

Case Name:

Waleed Albakri v. Sheriff of Orange County,
No. 6:15-cv-01969-GAP-GJK

Date:

July 10, 2017

Parties

Plaintiff(s):

Waleed Albakri (Male)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

Peter F. Helwig;
Harris & Helwig, P.A.;
Lakeland,
FL,
for
Waleed Albakri ■ Tark Richard Aouadi;
Aouadi Law;
Altamonte Springs,
FL,
for
Waleed Albakri ■ Katherine Heffner;
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida;
Tampa,
FL,
for
Waleed Albakri ■ Thania Diaz Clevenger;
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida;
Tampa,
FL,
for
Waleed Albakri

Defendant(s):

Sheriff of Orange County

Defense Attorney(s):

Mark E. Levitt;
Allen, Norton & Blue, P.A.;
Winter Park,
FL,
for
Sheriff of Orange County ■ Marc Aaron Sugerman;
Allen, Norton & Blue, P.A.;
Winter Park,
FL,
for
Sheriff of Orange County

Facts:

On April 1, 2014, plaintiff Waleed Albakri, a deputy sheriff’s officer, was fired from his position at the office of the sheriff of Orange County. His termination was based on his arrest on charges of insurance fraud. Albakri, a Sunni Muslim who holds dual citizenship in Jordan and the United States, began working for as a deputy sheriff in March 2008. He worked as a patrol officer until October 2010, when he transferred to a narcotics unit. At the time, the narcotics unit comprised approximately 25 to 30 deputies divided into three squads. Albakri was assigned to “Squad 3” for the duration of his time in the unit. He claimed that his assignment marked the beginning of harassment that he endured based on his national origin and religion. He also claimed that the investigation that led to his arrest was in retaliation for his having spoken out about the hostile work environment. Albakri sued the sheriff of Orange County. Albakri alleged that the Sheriff’s Department subjected him to a hostile work environment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000-1 to 2000-17. He also alleged that the Sheriff’s Department retaliated against him for reporting the discriminatory harassment he suffered and that his termination was the result of disparate treatment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000-1 to 2000-17. Albakri claimed that after her was assigned to Squad 3, he was subjected to a hostile work environment by his supervisor, Sergeant James Batie, and by his co-workers, who harassed him daily by mocking and degrading his religion and Arab ethnicity, directly and indirectly. According to Albakri, his co-workers in the narcotics unit mocked his religion and Arab heritage by saying that he should be searched for bombs, and nicknaming him “Kaboom.” He also claimed that they called him “terrorist” and derogatory names while in the presence of numerous co-workers, including sergeants, but that no one spoke up to condemn the comments or admonish the speakers. Albakri‘s complaint stated that his supervisor, Batie, joined in the harassment and deliberately interfered with his observance of Ramadan by taunting him with food and refusing to allow him to leave work in time to break the fast with his family. Albakri claimed that when Batie learned that he was particularly sensitive to lewd comments due to his religious beliefs, Batie repeatedly made crude “jokes” about being to Albakri‘s house and having sexual intercourse with his wife, as well as made similar comments about his sister-in-law and her virginity. He further claimed that when Batie learned that he was particularly sensitive to accusations of homosexuality, due to his religious beliefs, Batie repeatedly made false derogatory comments about his sexuality, often in front of others and in public settings. Albakri claimed that because the Sheriff’s Department has a formal policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on race, national origin, religion and sexual orientation, he complained to supervisors on many occasions during a two-year period from November 2010 to October 2012. He alleged that in August 2012, he took his grievances to his lieutenant, Bruce McMullen, who referred him to the Office of Professional Standards, where his complaint was reduced to writing. Both Albakri and Batie were transferred out of the narcotics unit, and a formal investigation was begun. During the investigation, Batie and other members of Albakri‘s squad admitted to much of the harassment, but on Feb. 8, 2013, the investigation found that there had been no unlawful discrimination or harassment. Albakri claimed that in 2014, after the investigation report came out, another investigation began, this time in connection with an alleged false insurance claim that he had made with respect to a burglary of his home. That investigation resulted in Albakri‘s arrest and criminal prosecution for insurance fraud. However, prosecutors eventually dropped the charges when Albakri went into a pretrial diversion program. Although Albakri was informed that he was fired based upon his arrest and prosecution for insurance fraud, Albakri contended that his firing was actually in retaliation for having filed formal internal complaints of harassment several months earlier. Defense counsel moved for summary judgment regarding Albakri‘s retaliation claims, and the motion was granted. Thus, the matter proceeded to trial as to Albakri‘s claims of ethnic and religious harassment. Defense counsel asserted that the first couple years of Albakri‘s employment in the narcotics division were largely unremarkable and that other deputies in the narcotics unit perceived Albakri and Batie to have a close, friendly relationship. Counsel also contended that the narcotics unit enjoyed a close-knit atmosphere and that employees (including deputies and supervisors) constantly joked and bantered with each other. As such, no complaints of discrimination or harassment were made from 2010 through 2012. However, in March 2012, Albakri complained to Batie that other agents were picking on him. As a result, Batie requested a meeting with his chain of command, Lieutenant Bruce McMullen and Captain Mark Pilkington, to discuss the joking and bantering that occurred between the narcotics squads. After their meeting, McMullen addressed Batie’s concerns with the sergeant from the other squad in an informal counseling session and instructed him to control his squad members. Defense counsel contended that during the course of resolving the issue, Albakri did not make any complaints about Batie or anyone else. However, in August 2012, Albakri met with McMullen and advised him that he had retained an attorney and intended to file a written complaint with the Professional Standards Division against Batie. According to defense counsel, Albakri claimed that over the past eight months, Batie frequently referred to him in public, and in the presence of other narcotics agents, by using homosexual slurs. As a result, McMullen immediately met with Pilkington to discuss Albakri‘s complaint, and they referred the complaint to the Professional Standards Division. Defense counsel contended that although Albakri submitted three written complaints, that the vast majority of the alleged harassment noted in the first complaint had nothing to do with Albakri‘s religion or national origin, and just alleged that Batie called him homosexual slurs and berated him. Albakri also raised allegations that two other co-workers made a single comment about checking him for bombs. Defense counsel contended that the second complaint was just a revised version of the first complaint and that most of allegations against Batie were not based on Albakri‘s religion or national origin. Counsel also noted that in response to Albakri‘s complaints, the Sheriff’s Department opened internal investigations against Batie and another co-worker. However, defense counsel contended that during the initial interview with the Professional Standards Division, Albakri did not articulate that he had experienced any discriminatory treatment based on his national origin, race, and/or religion. Defense counsel noted that, on Feb. 8, 2013, the investigation ultimately found that there had been no unlawful discrimination or harassment based largely on a conclusion that Albakri, himself, participated in the jocular bantering that defined the culture of the department. Specifically, the investigation revealed that Batie and Albakri, as well as most other deputies in the narcotics unit, engaged in inappropriate joking and banter and that Albakri was an active participant. Other deputies also testified about Albakri making jokes about women in his home country, homosexuals and other races. They also claimed that Albakri called himself “Kaboom,” clicked his pen imitating a detonator, made Arab tribal sounds, joked about blowing the place up, and made racist jokes towards two black deputies. Defense counsel argued that as a result of the investigation’s findings, the Sheriff’s Department spoke with the narcotics unit chain of command about the culture in the unit and restructured the unit by placing corporals as an additional level of supervision between deputies and sergeants. They also spoke with the units about the environment and inappropriate interactions between employees. Defense counsel further argued that even though there was no finding of unlawful discrimination, Batie was found to have “actively participated and encouraged a work environment where inappropriate comments and gestures were not only allowed but encouraged.” As a result, Batie was disciplined and ultimately discharged for a subsequent infraction. Defense counsel contended that, thereafter, there were no further incidents or complaints of harassment in the narcotics unit.

Injury:

Albakri claimed that he was deeply humiliated by the harassment he was subjected to at work, that he regularly told Batie that they were offensive to him as a Muslim and an Arab, and that he asked Batie to stop. However, he claimed that despite his protests, Batie continued with the harassment and that other staff members followed Batie’s lead, so the harassing comments and gestures were a daily occurrence. Thus, Albakri made no claim for back pay or other economic damages, and only sought recovery of damages for his alleged humiliation, emotional distress and mental suffering. He also sought recovery of attorney’s fees and costs, in the event he prevails in his lawsuit. Defense counsel argued that Albakri was facing many other difficult situations in his personal and professional life that could have caused him pain and suffering. Counsel noted that Albakri‘s home was allegedly burglarized in September 2011 and that Albakri came under investigation by the Florida Division of Insurance Fraud for an insurance claim he filed related to the burglary, which resulted in his arrest in October 2012. After he was arrested, Albakri was immediately suspended without pay. The criminal fraud charges were temporarily abandoned in May 2013, at which time the Sheriff’s Department began an administrative investigation into the fraud allegations and concluded, in December 2012, by sustaining several policy violations against Albakri. Meanwhile, the criminal fraud charges were re-filed by the state in January 2014, and Albakri was arrested again. After Albakri appealed his discipline with the Sheriff’s Department, he was terminated in April 2014.

Result:

The jury rendered a defense verdict. It concluded that Albakri was not subjected to unlawful workplace harassment by either supervisors or co-workers.

Trial Information:

Judge:

Gregory A. Presnell

Trial Length:

3
 days

Trial Deliberations:

1
 hours

Jury Vote:

8-0

Editor’s Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiff’s and defense counsel.