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ALI v. SOUTHEAST NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE

July 17, 1981

Peb ALI, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTHEAST NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREEN

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Peb Ali, ("Ali") brings this action against the defendant, the Southeast Neighborhood House ("SENH"), alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., on the ground that the defendant discriminated against him on the basis of his religion. At the outset, it should be noted that the sincerity with which the plaintiff, a Black Muslim, holds his religious beliefs is undisputed.

 Sincere beliefs, meaningful to the believer, need not be confined in either source or content to traditional or parochial concepts of religion. Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333, 90 S. Ct. 1792, 26 L. Ed. 2d 308 (1970). See also, United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S. Ct. 850, 13 L. Ed. 2d 733 (1965) for the definition of "religious training and belief" as applied to a conscientious objector claim, which definition is no less appropriate here. The Court noted the "vast panoply of beliefs" prevalent in our country and interpreted "the meaning of religious training and belief so as to embrace all religions." Id., at 165, 85 S. Ct. at 853 (emphasis added). "Intensely personal" convictions which some may find "incomprehensible" or "incorrect" fit within the framework of "religious belief." As the Court has said,

 
Most of the great religions of today and of the past have embodied the idea of a Supreme Being or a Supreme Reality a God who communicates to man in some way a consciousness of what is right and should be done, of what is wrong and therefore should be shunned.

 Under Welsh-Seeger then, as in this case, when logically we apply its rationale to Title VII cases also, the belief is protected if the belief sought to be protected is "religious" in that person's own scheme of things and if it is sincerely held.

 The following evidence, stated herein as findings of facts and conclusions of law, developed through trial.

 Plaintiff began his employment at the SENH on April 9, 1979, after discussing that possibility with Calvin Lockridge, a member of its Board of Directors ("Board"). After an interview by a panel of the Board, Ali was recommended to the Executive Director of SENH, Laplois Ashford, for the position of Associate Director, Community and Human Resources Division ("CHRD"), which plaintiff accepted. This position required Ali to exercise skills in management and administration over a staff of approximately twenty to twenty-three employees, and to preside over the role of SENH in various areas of the city, including housing and community organization. When plaintiff assumed his position, the Executive Director was aware of his religious beliefs and in fact had met him when both men lived and worked in Chicago, Illinois in the early 1970's.

 Soon after he began his employment, Ali experienced difficulties because he felt that certain duties he was required to undertake conflicted with his religious beliefs. Some examination of the circumstances surrounding those matters warrant mention, as they indicate the nature of plaintiff's beliefs as well as his perception of his position, and the interrelationship of his religion, as he saw it, and his employment requirements. The examples are merely illustrative and not intended to be inclusive of all the problems these parties encountered.

 One incident concerned a time sheet submitted by a Meredith Gilbert, who commenced employment at SENH as a consultant in the housing area on March 12, 1979 and later, in early May, became Housing Coordinator. When Gilbert submitted his time sheet for hours worked, plaintiff refused to sign the document because he had not seen Gilbert on the premises and therefore thought that he would be acting dishonestly if he verified Gilbert's hours in the absence of this personal observation. Although Ali testified that his own investigation revealed that Gilbert's work was unrelated to SENH, that it involved a political campaign and not work in the CHRD, and that he reluctantly signed the time sheet only because of Ashford's direction, the credible evidence verified Gilbert's employment as a consultant. The Executive Director testified that he did not order Ali to sign the time sheet, that he could have signed the attendance record without Ali's approval, and that, pursuant to his ultimate authority to resolve all such disputes, Ashford decided that the time should be credited. As further evidence made clear, however, this aspect of plaintiff's complaint had little to do with the charge of religious discrimination.

 Another series of events concerned the role of Ms. Peggy Jackson and harbored a complicated scenario that began when all employees were informed in early February, 1979, as a result of the Board of Directors' decision, that a major reorganization of SENH was to be undertaken to avert imminent financial crisis. To reformulate the House's mission and to give the Board complete flexibility in deciding upon personnel to fill the staff positions in a differently structured organization, the Board agreed to send each employee a notice of termination and ask that the employee submit a new application for work at SENH. A notice was thereupon given to all employees at a staff meeting in February, with an effective date of February 26, 1979 for termination of employment. The Executive Director testified that there were a number of unqualified people in positions of responsibility at SENH, and Jackson was one of those.

 Yet plaintiff's testimony is outweighed by the testimony of Ms. Jackson herself. She indicated, and facts fortified this conclusion, that the Board meeting at which she cast the criticized vote was indeed related to her work at SENH. Although Ashford had vested Jackson with what she characterized as "independent discretion," the entire matter was not a personal or political dispute between the Executive Director and her. Plaintiff's individual investigation had again produced incorrect results, yet his refusal to discharge Jackson was premised on those results.

 Additionally, the evidence reflected that although Jackson was discharged from her position as Junior Housing Advisor, along with each and every other employee at SENH, she did have substantial problems performing effectively in her position. As the controversy about Jackson increased, she submitted her resignation in late April, effective May 31, 1979. A pervasive problem persisted in plaintiff's Department because the Executive Director had hired Meredith Gilbert to replace Jackson, yet Ms. Jackson was determined to remain in her old office and continue with her duties to the point her resignation took effect. The conflict between Jackson and Gilbert produced considerable tension in the CHRD, and Ali's failure to manage the Department during this dispute, and resolve the difficulties, was one of the significant causes of his discharge. He adamantly refused to follow Ashford's direction that Jackson be fired, and as a compromise, made her a consultant. This solution satisfied neither Jackson nor Gilbert and the matter eventually subsumed most normal responsibilities in CHRD to the point where nothing was being accomplished.

 Apart from plaintiff's difficulties over Gilbert's timecard and the continued employment of Jackson, he alleged that his discharge was motivated by the Executive Director's discriminatory attitude towards Ali's Muslim beliefs. A chronology of the final days of Ali's employment at SENH will clarify the evidence concerning this serious complaint.

 A meeting was held May 23 at Lockridge's house between Ashford, Gilbert, Ali and Lockridge to attempt to resolve the differences between Ali and Gilbert. While Ashford concurred that Gilbert was a difficult person, he was not the only problem Ali encountered, without resolution, during his brief employment. This session was not effective. On May 25, Ashford initiated another meeting with Ali to discuss procedures in his Department which conference, lasting almost ninety minutes, produced a list of ten specific steps that Ashford directed Ali to ...


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