By: Latiqua M. Liles
On February 22, 2020, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of discrimination, hostile work environment, and wrongful termination claims filed by a former non-tenured high school History teacher, and self-proclaimed non-practicing Muslim of Egyptian decent. In Ali v. Woodbridge Township School District, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the former employee’s claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and §1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (§1981), finding that the former employee failed to allege sufficient facts in support of his claims. The Court further dismissed the former employee’s claims for First Amendment violations and defamation.
Jason Mostafa Ali was a high school History teacher at Woodbridge High School from September 2015 to September 2016. In May 2016, Ali’s Department Supervisor received several internal complaints about Ali’s instruction on the Holocaust. Specifically, sources confirmed that Ali had taught students that “Hitler didn’t hate Jews,” and that “statistics on the death counts were ‘exaggerated’.” Around the same time, Ali had also prepared and presented a lesson on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which required the reading of certain online articles, translated by the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute (“MEMRI”), alleging U.S. government involvement in the attacks. Links to these articles were posted on a school-sponsored website for student access. The MEMRI articles also contained links to anti-Semitic articles.
On September 29, 2016, a meeting was held with Ali, the District Superintendent, the Principal, and Ali’s Department Supervisor to discuss his conduct. Following the meeting, Ali was given a letter advising him that his employment was terminated effective that day. The Board of Education approved Ali’s termination at its next meeting.
District Court’s Decision
In March 2017, Ali filed a fifteen-count complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey against the Woodbridge Township Board of Education, the School District, the Superintendent, and Principal, alleging discrimination based on his termination. Ali also asserted a claim for hostile work environment based on allegedly disparaging comments made by the Principal motivated by Ali’s ethnicity. Ali further alleged that similar remarks were made by the Superintendent, Principal, and Department Supervisor during meetings occurring the day before and the day of his termination.
Ali’s case was transferred to the Federal District Court and then dismissed.
For Ali to prevail on his claim of discrimination based on race, religion, or perceived religion under the NJLAD or §1981, he had to show that (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the position; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the action occurred under circumstances that could give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. If all four prongs are established, the School District must articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Ali’s termination. Then, Ali must show that the School District’s articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reason is pretext, and that Ali’s protected status was the determinative factor in his termination.
The School District offered the following reasons for terminating Ali: (1) Ali disseminated links to anti-Semitic online articles through the school’s official channels; (2) Ali expressed no remorse for this conduct; and (3) Ali’s history of teaching Holocaust denial theories to his students. The District Court found that these were legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for termination.
To prevail on his hostile work environment claim under the NJLAD, Ali had to show that the alleged conduct would not have occurred but for his race or national origin, and that the conduct was “so pervasive or severe” that a reasonable person in that situation would believe that the “conditions of employment are altered and the working environment is hostile or abusive.” The District Court found that the five isolated comments allegedly made over the course of a full year failed to rise to the level necessary to establish a hostile work environment claim.
Finally, the District Court also dismissed Ali’s remaining claims, including those for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom violations, as well as defamation.
Third Circuit’s Decision
On appeal, Ali challenged the legitimacy of the School District’s rationale that he was terminated for disseminating anti-Semitic material through the school-sponsored website, based on his Department Supervisor’s prior approval of the MEMRI articles in Ali’s lesson plan. However, the Third Circuit found that this would not preclude Ali’s termination, nor would it prove that Ali’s termination was pretext for discrimination. Ali did not challenge the School District’s remaining two rationales for his termination. The Third Circuit held that the School District proffered at least two legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Ali’s employment.
Further, noting that the comments alleged to have been made bear a tenuous relationship to Ali’s race, the Third Circuit held that viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Ali, he has not presented evidence minimally necessary to form a claim for hostile work environment. In so holding, the Third Circuit agreed with the District Court that these were isolated incidents, and that none of the comments rise to the level of severity that would alter work conditions.
Finally, the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s dismissal of Ali’s remaining claims.
New Jersey courts give considerable weight to an employer’s genuine, non-discriminatory reasons for taking disciplinary action against employees. As proven time and time again, employers must be especially careful when disciplining employees. Be sure to document all complaints made by or against an employee, disciplinary meetings conducted, and any disciplinary actions taken. This is imperative to defending employment discrimination claims.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices for defending claims of discrimination, hostile work environment, or wrongful termination, please contact John C. Petrella, Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group via email or Dina M. Mastellone, Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Counseling & Compliance Practice Group, here or at 973-533-0777.