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Harrington v. MTA

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Synopsis

Harrington v. MTA (Case No. 05-cv-3341 (E.D.N.Y.)) was a civil suit filed on behalf of Sikh subway motorman Kevin Harrington against the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which attempted to prevent him from wearing his turban while on the job.  The Sikh Coalition and Ravinder Singh Bhalla were co-counsel on this case, and the United States Justice Department sued the MTA in parallel with our litigation (that case is titled United States v. New York City Transit Authority, No. 04-cv-4237 (E.D.N.Y.)).

The case settled on May 31, 2012, when the MTA abandoned both its initial attempts to force Sikh workers to remove their turbans and its later attempt to force them to wear an MTA corporate logo on the turban. Instead, Sikhs will be allowed to wear their turbans, with or without the MTA logo, as long as the color of the fabric is blue (consistent with the MTA uniform).

Status

The case settled on May 31, 2012.

Description

Harrington v. MTA is a civil suit filed on behalf of Kevin Harrington, a Sikh subway motorman who, following the September 11 attacks, was ordered by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York to either wear an MTA cap instead of his turban or choose a yard job out of sight of the public.

As a practicing Sikh, Mr. Harrington is required to maintain uncut hair and cover it with a turban, a requirement that is central to the Sikh faith. Harrington, who has worked for the MTA for 20 years, has worn a turban on the job the entire time. It was only in June 2004 that an MTA official ordered Mr. Harrington to remove his turban and that if he refused to do so, he would lose his job as a train operator and the privileges he had earned based on his years of service. In response, he requested that the MTA respect his religious beliefs and refused to remove his turban. In June 2004, Mr. Harrington was punished and reassigned, but days later, he was placed back in his original position. (Five Sikh station agents later joined the litigation, with a separate case titled Singh v. New York City Transit Authority, No. 05-cv-5477 (E.D.N.Y.).)

Originally MTA insisted that the plaintiffs should wear an official MTA uniform hat instead of their turbans. Of course, there was no official MTA hat -- only three different styles of optional MTA uniform hats, two of which had no MTA logo whatsoever on them. Indeed, during the 2000 "subway" World Series between the Yankees and Mets, the MTA advised workers they could wear team hats on the job. Nonetheless, by the time the federal complaint was ready to be filed, the MTA's policy had morphed into a demand that Sikh subway workers wear a large MTA corporate logo on their turban. A March 2005 Justice Department investigation found over 200 instances of MTA employees wearing headdress without an MTA logo during three days of inspection. (The Justice Department filed its own suit against the MTA over failuire to accomodate Muslim and Sikh religious headwear in September 2004.)

Our suit charged that the MTA violated both Title VII (the federal law prohibiting discrimination in employment) and the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) when it asked Harrington to either not wear his turban or accept another job. Under the NYSHRL, where an employee requests a variance from standard employment practices (e.g., a uniform requirement) for religious reasons, an employer must make reasonable accommodation unless it can demonstrate undue hardship, meaning “significant expense or difficulty.”

It was difficult to understand the MTA’s original position in this case as anything other than a calculated attempt to hide Sikh workers from public view on the grounds that they ‘look Muslim’ and might alarm the public for that reason. Their later proposal to brand workers’ turbans with a corporate MTA logo was equally unacceptable -- the average American would find it absurd to attach a corporate logo to a yarmulke, and the turban is no less significant to Sikhs as a symbol of religious faith. Kevin Harrington heroically led a full subway train worth of passengers to safety during the 9/11 attacks, and no one had problems recognizing him as an MTA employee then.

Following the settlement, Sikhs will be allowed to wear their turbans on the job without a corporate logo attached, with the only requirement being that the color of the turban must be blue (consistent with the MTA uniform). Management training and publicity within the ranks are provided for. The MTA will provide $87,000 in damages split between the six named plaintiffs and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 attorneys’ fees for CCR and co-counsel.

Despite the fact that Sikhs proudly wearing their turbans comprise a major part of the armed forces and police in India, the NYPD still maintains a flat ban on wearing turbans in the police ranks.

A New York Times editorial on the settlement is available here.

 

Timeline

On July 13, 2005, CCR along with co-counsel filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Discovery was finished early in 2007.

The MTA's motion to dimiss was rejected in September 2010.

In September 2011, Mayor Bloomberg signed into law a city council bill raising the standards for the hardship an employer must show before rejecting a request for religious accomodation.

The unopposed motion for entry of settlement agreement was filed on May 31, 2012.