Sikh Who Kept Beard Can Sue Lexus Dealership

     (CN) – A Lexus dealership cannot dismiss claims that adhering to its corporate parent’s no-beard policy made it discriminate against a Sikh, a federal judge ruled.
     As a practicing member of the Sikh faith, Gupreet Kherha has never cut his hair, attends church regularly, wears a turban, and reads from the holy book every morning. Kherha filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Galaxy Inc. dba Tri-County Lexus, of Little Falls, N.J., on Nov. 3, 2008.
     Kherha alleged that auto sales training company, T.K. Worldwide Inc., recruited him to work at Tri-County Lexus after undergoing a three-day, $294-per-person training session led by Full Throttle Training and its owner, Dominick Pupo, in February 2008.
     At the first interview, Tri-County’s general manager, Clark Nelson, had Pupo ask Kherha if he was Sikh, according to the complaint. At the end of Day 2, Nelson again had Pupo privately ask whether Kherha’s beard was a religious requirement.
     After Kherha explained that “the cutting of my hair, including facial hair, would violate my religious beliefs and practices as a Sikh,” Pupo asked him if he would shave his beard to obtain a job with Tri-County. Kherha refused.
     Pupo then left the room and, upon his return, announced that Kherha had not been hired. Pupo then told Kherha that although Nelson said he was “exactly what they were looking for” – “well qualified,” “well educated,” and had “interviewed better than anyone else in the training group” -Lexus of America has a corporate policy banning salesmen from having facial hair and was not willing to make an exception for Kherha.
     After an investigation, the EEOC filed a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1994 and 1991 on Sept. 28, 2010. Kherha later intervened, adding a New Jersey Law Against Discrimination claim.
     Senior U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise refused last week to clear Tri-County, which won a default judgment in its third-party action against T.K. in 2011.
     “Even if Mr. Pupo were not the final decision-maker, he acted on behalf of Mr. Nelson by advancing and rejecting certain candidates in the hiring process,” Debevoise wrote. “In Mr. Kherha’s case, Mr. Nelson delivered messages via Mr. Pupo regarding Mr. Kherha’s willingness to modify his beard to conform with the company’s no-beard policy. Defendant cannot hide its colorable discriminating behavior behind the cloak of an individual contracted to do its bidding.”
     The judge also tossed aside the claim that Kherha’s religion “was not readily apparent.”
     “This is an oblique argument and avoids the relevant point – Mr. Kherha’s garb clearly indicates that he is a person of faith, or at least should have put defendant on sufficient notice to inquire further,” Debevoise wrote. “Moreover, the facts establish that Mr. Pupo knew of Mr. Kherha’s faith through the initial screening interview, and that he notified Mr. Nelson of his religious precept to wear an untampered beard.”
     A reasonable fact finder could conclude that the dealership failed to accommodate Kherha, the ruling states.
     “No reasonable accommodation was pursued,” Debevoise wrote. “Of note, defendant provides training to its managers on an annual basis regarding the company’s policy on discrimination and harassment. Reading the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Mr. Kherha was not invited to return the following day to continue the hiring process, unlike seven of the other candidates who were invited. A genuine issue of material fact is evident as to whether defendant acted in reckless disregard to Mr. Kherha’s protected rights. Therefore, the motion for summary judgment must be denied.”

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