Terry Ali said in a federal lawsuit she was fired from her job days after the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shootings. Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press via USA Today

Workplace bias complaints pour in from Michigan Muslims

Terry Ali said in a federal lawsuit she was fired from her job days after the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shootings. Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press via USA Today

Terry Ali said in a federal lawsuit she was fired from her job days after the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shootings. Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press via USA Today

DETROIT — Just days after a Muslim couple carried out a mass shooting in California, the phone lines at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Dearborn, Mich., started ringing.

Women in headscarves were calling for help, asking how to protect against discrimination in the workplace — and anywhere else they ventured.

One of them was Terry Ali, a 48-year-old medical receptionist who is suing Livonia Dermatology, claiming the clinic fired her two days after the deadly shooting because of her religious beliefs. Specifically, she wore a hijab to work.

Since the Dec. 2 attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has received more than a dozen phone calls from Muslim Americans locally reporting a variety of workplace discrimination and harassment complaints. Of those calls, one has triggered a lawsuit, and two similar workplace suits are in the works, said Fatina Abdrabboh, executive director of the Michigan office, who hopes the litigation sends a message to employers.

"We're watching. This stuff can't go unchecked ... and if you think of putting someone in the back room or letting them go because of the headscarf, you can't do it," said Abdrabboh, who urges the public and employers not to "feed into this rhetoric against us."

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Abdrabboh said the complaints run the gamut, from supervisors and colleagues making snide remarks to Muslim workers about "wackos and your people," to people such as Ali, who claims she was fired by email because of her headscarf.

Abdrabboh called Ali's lawsuit a "smoking gun" case that should serve as a warning to other employers.

Meanwhile, Ali's case is being investigated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has to decide the following: Was Ali fired because she was a slow typist, as the employer claims, or was she let go because of her headscarf, as the employee claims?

Here, according to her lawsuit, is what happened:

Ali had been a receptionist for only one day at Livonia Dermatology when national news broke about the California shooting.

The day after the shooting, when she came into work, Ali — who wears a hijab — was assigned to work in a back room putting files away, not in the front greeting clients, which was what she was hired to do, the lawsuit claims.

After two days of working in a back room, Ali was fired — information she learned after receiving this email from the office manager:

"My dear Terry, let me start by saying you are a wonderful person. I can't say enough ... your smile is infectious. I wish I had the opportunity to sit down with you and I feel awful even being so impolite and sending you an e-mail," stated the Dec. 5 email, which was obtained by the Detroit Free Press. "Unfortunately, I will not be able to keep your employment with us. The cosmetic center (is) going down to part-time, we are going to be bringing over the full-time employee to work the front desk here. ... Terry, you are a joyful person and it comes off in your attitude. ... Good luck to you in your future endeavors."

Livonia Dermatology adamantly denies that Ali was fired because of her headscarf, noting that the co-owner of the clinic, Meena Moossavi, is from Iran and is a Muslim, and that the clinic staff is diverse. The office manager said Ali was terminated because she couldn't type fast.

"Her dismissal had to do with technical competency; it had nothing to do with religious beliefs," said Jennifer Couturier, the office manager at Livonia Dermatology who hired Ali and sent her the termination email. "She was not removed for any other reasons. She was a hunt-and-peck typer."

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Ali's lawyer, Shareef Akeel, scoffed at the clinic's response, noting that the job description did not mention typing skills. A copy of the job qualifications that the Free Press has does not mention typing skills.

"What they did to Ms. Ali was grossly insensitive and outrageous. Thankfully, we have laws that deal with religious discrimination at the workplace," said Akeel. "The emails speak for themselves why she was let go."

Akeel also noted that nobody at the dermatology clinic wore a hijab.

According to the lawsuit, Ali responded to an ad for a medical assistant-receptionist position with Livonia Dermatology at the end of October. During her interview, she was asked why she wore a hijab, the lawsuit says. She explained it was because of her faith.

After the interview, she received an email from the office manager stating: "You are definitely at the top of my list from today :)"

She received an email saying she got the job on Nov. 5. She started Dec. 1 working in the front area of the office.

On Dec. 2, national news broke of a mass shooting in California.

The next day, Ali was summoned to the office and asked whether she could get her old job back. She said she was happy where she was. She was then moved to the back room, putting files away, not out front greeting clients.

On Dec. 5, the lawsuit said, Ali received the email telling her she had lost her new job.

(Tresa Baldas writes for the Detroit Free Press)