(CN) – The 9th Circuit revived an Iranian-American’s discrimination lawsuit against Raytheon Company, finding that the engineer had presented evidence that the defense-industry giant fired him for reasons other than his lack of federal security clearance.
Hossein Zeinali worked for Raytheon in California for four years while awaiting a government decision on his “secret-level” clearance, which the company required for his position as an engineer.
The company kept him on in a non-secure position after the government rejected Zeinali’s initial request for interim clearance. While he generally received good performance evaluations, in 2004 Zeinali transferred to a different department after being passed over for a promotion and arguing with a program manager, according to the ruling.
The Department of Defense finally rejected Zeinali’s request for security clearance in 2006. Raytheon fired him soon after.
Zeinali sued the company in District Court, alleging that Raytheon had used the security clearance issue as a pretext to get rid of him. He presented evidence that two non-Iranian workers had been kept on after their security clearances had been revoked.
The District Court ruled for Raytheon, finding that it could not second-guess the government’s denial of security clearance and so lacked jurisdiction in the case.
On appeal, the federal appeals panel in Pasadena unanimously reversed that decision.
Zeinali’s complaint did not question the Department of Defenses’ denial of security clearance, the panel found. He argued instead that Raytheon’s security clearance requirement was not a “bona fide job requirement” and that Raytheon used the government’s security clearance decision to drum him out of the company.
“Zeinali’s basic contention is that he has satisfied his summary judgment burden by introducing evidence that Raytheon terminated him while retaining at least two similarly situated non-Iranian engineers who lacked security clearances,” wrote Judge Milan Smith for the three-judge panel. “The record and case law support Zeinali’s position.”
Raytheon did not fire two engineers in San Diego after the government revoked their security clearances for, respectively, national security and financial reasons, the panel found.
“Neither of these employees were Iranian or Middle Eastern, and they continued to work for at least four years between the revocation of their clearances and the time of the Raytheon deposition,” Smith wrote. “In light of the fact that Raytheon retained multiple non-Iranian engineers after their security clearances were revoked, Zeinali has raised triable disputes regarding whether security clearances were a bona fide requirement for Raytheon engineers, and whether Raytheon’s central purported reason for terminating him (his lack of a security clearance) was pretextual.”
While Raytheon argued that a denial of security clearance is different from a revocation, the panel remained unconvinced.
“Raytheon has not identified any legal or factual distinction between Zeinali’s clearance denial and the two non-Iranian engineers’ clearance revocations,” the ruling states. “Zeinali has introduced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Raytheon applied its security clearance policy in a discriminatory manner.”
The panel reversed the District Court’s ruling and remanded the case back for another look.