The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled that a Muslim employee raised a triable national origin and religion discrimination claim against his employer arising out of his five-day suspension for using the gym during work hours. Ucar v. Conn. Dep’t of Transp., (D. Conn., No. 14-CV-765, 8/11/16).  The situation arose when, after receiving a tip, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) commenced an investigation into Ucar’s use of the gym during work hours, resulting in Ucar being placed on a five-day suspension.  Ucar subsequently brought this action under Title VII, alleging DOT discriminated against him on the basis of his national origin and religion, amongst other claims. 

DOT moved for summary judgment on all claims.  With regard to his claim of discrimination, the motion was denied.  The Court found that Ucar proffered sufficient evidence to establish the first three elements of a prima facie case of disparate treatment under Title VII: (1) he was a member of a protected class; (2) was qualified for his position; and, (3) he suffered an adverse employment action, i.e., the five-day suspension.  With regard to the fourth element—“the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent”—the Court found that a reasonable juror could conclude that Ucar satisfied this element.  The evidence demonstrated that similarly situated employees (insofar as they are union employees of DOT) outside of Ucar’s protected class were permitted to take short breaks to smoke cigarettes or go for a walk, without adverse consequences.  DOT argued that these employees were not “similarly situated” because they did not use the gym, were not part of his work unit, and some were not even in his chain of command.  Despite this argument, DOT’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

This case serves as a reminder that careful consideration must be given prior to taking adverse action.  For litigation avoidance, broad interpretation of the term “similarly situated” is best.