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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

American Indian’s Bias Suit Given Another Shot

(CN) - An American Indian social worker who refuses to classify himself as a member of any one religious group must amend his discrimination claims, a federal judge ruled.

Tecumseh Brown-Eagle says that sometime after the Erie County, Pa., Office of Children and Youth hired him to work as a caseworker in 2010, one of his co-workers made false allegations about Brown-Eagle's heritage and religion.

Though he participates in Islamic, Christian, and Jewish religious services, Brown-Eagle allegedly refuses to categorize himself into a single religion. He also studied the Mound Builders, a group of American Indians who built mounds of religious significance, according to the complaint.

The co-worker allegedly accused Brown-Eagle of engaging in fantasy.

Brown-Eagle said Erie County knew, or should have known, that that claim was false, but failed to properly investigate it without bias.

In his federal complaint, he claimed that the office fired him based on the alleged lies and "because defendant did not want people perceived as African American" working for them.

Brown-Eagle further attributed his firing to his "religious practices" and the fact that he is a dark-skinned, American Indian male, citing violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill conceded Wednesday that Brown-Eagle's "choice of phrase was poor," but refused to dismiss his color-discrimination claim.

"Mr. Brown-Eagle's pleadings are not models of clarity and his counsel appears to rely on the bare minimum of alleged facts making the task of discerning the specific claims extremely difficult," Cohill wrote. "Nonetheless, viewing the allegations in the original complaint in favor of plaintiff, it is apparent that he attempted to assert a discrimination claim based on color."

Erie also argued unsuccessfully that Brown-Eagle's admitted participation in multiple faiths implies that "he cannot possibly hold a deep religious belief in any of them," according to the ruling.

Though Cohill disagreed on this point, he did find that Brown-Eagle had failed to state a claim.

"While he alleges that he 'engaged in the study of the Mound Builders, a group of American Indians who built mounds having religious significance,' he does not claim that he holds a religious belief of the Mound Builders of American Indians," Cohill wrote (emphasis in original). "While he need not categorize himself into a single religion, it is incumbent upon plaintiff to state that he does in fact hold a sincere religious belief and include sufficient allegations to explain what that sincere religious belief is."

The judge also toss Brown-Eagle's claims for discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin.

"Plaintiff not only fails to allege that defendant treated American Indians differently than non-American Indians, but in fact plaintiff alleges to the contrary that no 'American Indian employees were subjected to a similar biased investigation,'" Cohill wrote. "Thus, plaintiff admits in his complaint that other American Indians were not treated with the same discriminatory animus as he was. We agree with defendant that the implication to draw from these allegations is that defendant's investigation was not based on national origin." (Emphasis in original).

Brown-Eagle has until Nov. 13 to amend his complaint a third time, according to the ruling.

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