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Ashraf-Hassan v. Embassy of France States

United States District Court, District Circuit

November 19, 2013



JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Plaintiff Saima Ashraf-Hassan arrived in the United States and began working for the French Embassy. Ashraf-Hassan was born in Pakistan but is a French citizen who studied law at the Sorbonne. She is also a practicing Muslim. She brought this suit alleging that the Embassy subjected her to a hostile work environment on account of her national origin, race, religion, and pregnancy, all in violation of Title VII. Specifically, she recounts that she was called a terrorist and a “Pashtoun, ” which she regards as an ethnic slur; she and her children were referred to as dogs; she was admonished not to “wear any headscarves or wear any religious signs, ” despite never having done so at work; she was told that she should not have a child and lectured on the use of birth control; she was temporarily fired for being pregnant; she was terminated and was replaced by a French man; and, during her last weeks of employment, she was relegated to the intern room, forced to stand in the hallway for long stretches of time waiting for her supervisor to give her access to that room, and had her phone and email access taken away. Ashraf-Hassan’s supervisors were allegedly responsible for these acts, all of which were allegedly motivated by discriminatory animus.

The Embassy now moves for summary judgment, claiming that, based on the evidence presented thus far, no reasonable jury would find that these acts created a hostile work environment. Alternatively, it argues that it should not be held vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. Although plaintiffs must meet a high bar to prove a hostile-work-environment claim, the evidence presented by Ashraf-Hassan is extreme enough to overcome summary judgment and merit a trial. Furthermore, because the harassment and her termination were carried out by her supervisors, who presumptively act on the Embassy’s behalf, Defendant cannot avoid liability at this stage of litigation. The Motion for Summary Judgment will thus be denied. Ashraf-Hassan also separately moves for an adverse inference based on the alleged destruction of evidence, but the Court need not resolve that issue at this time.

I. Background

Many of the facts in this case are disputed. On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must take the evidence of the non-movant – here, Plaintiff – as true and must view the facts in the light most favorable to her. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). In setting forth these facts, therefore, the Court does not endorse them as true; instead, they are simply allegations for which Plaintiff provides record support.

Ashraf-Hassan, a former employee of the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., is a French citizen who was born in Pakistan. See Mot., Exh. 3 (Deposition of Saima Ashraf-Hassan, Part I) at 10:1-21, 217:11-12, 221:8-20. She is also a practicing Muslim. See id. at 31:7-39:7. She originally came to the United States to complete research for her Ph.D. in law, which she was pursuing at the Sorbonne. See id. at 10:1-21. After arriving in Washington, Ashraf-Hassan obtained an internship with the French Embassy, which later led to an offer of full-time employment. See id. at 10:1-11:3. From February 2002 to January 2007, she worked for the Embassy. See id. at 10:1-12:17, 220:11-16. Her duties included supervising the Embassy’s internship-placement program and coordinating the Embassy’s partnership with the French-American Cultural Exchange (FACE) in New York. See Mot., Exh. 2 (Pl. Resp. to Int.) at 23.

During her five years of employment with the Embassy, Ashraf-Hassan alleges that she was subjected to discrimination on the basis of national origin, race, religion, and pregnancy. See id. at 6-12; see also Am. Compl., ¶¶ 142-75. Primarily, she claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment permeated by harassment so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of her employment.

According to Ashraf-Hassan, the hostile treatment began almost the moment she arrived at the Embassy. Her supervisor, Chantal Manes, often “ask[ed] Plaintiff questions regarding her religion, race, and national origin, ” and commented on the fact that she was from the same region as the 9/11 terrorists – even though Ashraf-Hassan grew up in France. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 6. When Manes, who oversaw the internship-placement program, read about a group of Pakistani terrorists who were arrested in New York, she waved a newspaper at Ashraf-Hassan and stated that “her people had done it again.” Id. Manes also repeatedly instructed her that “she should not wear any headscarves or wear any religious signs, symbols or jewelry, ” despite the fact that Plaintiff had never done so inside the Embassy. Id. at 7.

In March or April of 2002, Ashraf-Hassan discovered that she was pregnant and mentioned the pregnancy to a colleague and perhaps also to Manes. See id.; see also Mot., Exh. 18 (Letter to Secretary General). Shortly thereafter, Manes allegedly summoned Plaintiff to her office and began “lecturing [her] for an hour” about the pregnancy and “yelling at [her] like [she] was a criminal.” Ashraf-Hassan Dep., Part I at 238:16-21. Ashraf-Hassan recollects Manes scolding, “You should not have this baby. You should have planned it. You should not accept a job if you’re planning [to have] a baby. You should take condoms, pills.” Id. at 237:18-21. Manes then fired Ashraf-Hassan for failing to “earn [her] trust.” See Mot., Exh. 4 (Deposition of Saima Ashraf-Hassan, Part II) at 13:13. Two white, French women in the office were also pregnant at the time; neither was lectured or fired in the wake of her pregnancy. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 7; Ashraf-Hassan Dep., Part I at 248:1-9.

Ashraf-Hassan wrote letters to the Ambassador and Secretary General appealing Manes’s decision. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 7. A few days later, the Ambassador’s assistant contacted Ashraf-Hassan and asked her to return to work. See id.; Ashraf-Hassan Dep., Part I at 140:3-19. The Ambassador himself later apologized, confirming that she should not have been fired. See Ashraf-Hassan Dep., Part I at 140:3-19. The Embassy does not dispute that Ashraf-Hassan was fired, but it claims she was terminated for failure to disclose her pregnancy to Manes – for a lack of candor – rather than as a result of discrimination. See Mot. at 4-7, 19-21.

As Ashraf-Hassan recounts, after she returned to work, she was treated differently from Manes’s other employees. She “was frequently informed of meetings after they had begun”; was “required to fulfill other employees’ responsibilities while they were on vacation” or lunch, while no one did the same for her; “was denied vacation days even though she had vacation days left”; and was not welcome at events or annual meetings that all other employees attended. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 7-8. When a colleague spotted Ashraf-Hassan walking down the hall and commented to Manes, “Now we hire terrorists, ” Plaintiff recalls Manes smiling and nodding, as if she were not even there. Id. at 8. After this incident, she “spent hours . . . crying in [her] office.” Ashraf-Hassan Dep., Part I at 229:18.

In October of 2004, Ashraf-Hassan began to work as an assistant to Christian Tual, who oversaw the FACE cultural-exchange program; this was in addition to her duties under Manes. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 8. Tual, as Ashraf-Hassan describes, created a racially charged work environment. He allegedly “told Plaintiff that he did not like Pakistanis, Indians, and Chinese.” Id. at 9. He also “asked Plaintiff on several occasions why she was not working at the Pakistani Embassy and told her that she would be better off there.” Id. In addition, Ashraf-Hassan claims that Tual referred to her and her children as “dogs.” See Ashraf-Hassan Dep., Part II at 141:11-14.

Eventually, Robby Judes, who is black, replaced Manes as Ashraf-Hassan’s primary supervisor. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 9. Judes and Tual had a difficult working relationship; Tual allegedly “did not believe Mr. Judes was qualified” for the job “because of Mr. Judes[’s] race.” Id. Distraught by the mounting tension at work, her low salary, and the discriminatory work environment, Ashraf-Hassan sought help. In the spring of 2005, she recalls that she contacted Virginie Pont, a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and discussed the situation. See id. at 8. Nothing came of that meeting. In September 2006, Ashraf-Hassan wrote to Kareen Rispal, Tual’s supervisor in New York, to complain about her working conditions. Id. at 9; see Mot., Exh. 21 (Letter to Kareen Rispal) at 2-9. Again, nothing was done. See Pl. Resp. to Int. at 9.

While in France in November 2006, Ashraf-Hassan also recalls having spoken to Phillipe Righini and Roger Wilhelm at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who then contacted Rispal in New York. Id. at 10. Rispal reached out to Tual in early December. Mot., Exh. 8 (Letters from Christian Tual) at 2. Tual later relayed to Ashraf-Hassan that Rispal had resolved her complaints related to salary, but he did not mention anything about discrimination. See id. Ashraf-Hassan believes that her ...

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