Discrimination lawsuit filed against MSU

A former MSU employee filed civil suit against MSU in February alleging intolerable workplace harassment and discrimination.

The employee, an expatriate from Jordan and naturalized U.S. citizen, worked as a janitor at the university. Akram Zahran’s lawsuit, filed in Gallatin County District Court, lists MSU, former coworkers Rodney Ackerman and Duane Dunn as well as supervisor Twanna Martin as defendants.

Zahran began work at the university in 2009. His suit alleges that starting in February 2014, the two coworkers against whom the suit is filed began verbally and physically harassing him — calling him a “terrorist” and poking him in the butt with a broomstick.

The lawsuit alleges that the coworkers greeted him with with offensive remarks, including, “Hello, asshole” and “Hello, Bedouin,” (an Arab nomad, usually of the Arabian and Syrian deserts) and continued the misconduct in front of the supervisor. According to the case, Martin did not attempt to discontinue the abuse, even as the coworkers continued calling Zahran “Ahmed” and “terrorist.”

Zahran eventually delivered a written complaint to Martin. The following day, May 20, 2014, Chief Housing Officer Tammie Brown responded by delivering the two coworkers a three-day paid suspension and issuing a no-contact order to all three. “We took steps to protect Mr. Zahran from further discrimination,” said Tracy Ellig, director of university communications. In addition to the mandatory leave, “We had training in appropriate workplace conduct and discrimination for the work unit that was involved.”

MSU found that Ackerman and Dunn had indeed violated the non-discrimination policies in an internal investigation conducted on May 22. “MSU takes any allegation of discrimination very seriously,” Ellig said, “We did so in this case.”

Following the internal investigation, Zahran also made his discrimination complaint to the Human Rights Bureau and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ellig explained that the Human Rights Bureau, a part of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, conducted their own investigation “and found that MSU had taken appropriate steps in the case once it had become aware of the situation.”

Zahran’s case alleges that discrimination continued when he was denied time-off for his birthday. According to another coworker, birthday time off was customary and the denial was due to Zahran’s complaint to the state.

Shortly after, Zahran resigned, calling his workplace “intolerable.” Zahran’s suit claims that he endured “frequent, severe, physically threatening and humiliating conduct” in the workplace, leading to mental anguish and emotional distress. Further, the case alleges that MSU was negligent in providing a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace. Ellig was adamant that MSU did what it was supposed to. “When we became aware of this, we followed our procedure and acted as swiftly as we could,” he said. “Our actions were backed up by the Montana Human Rights Bureau.”

As of Monday, the lawsuit has not yet been served to MSU, Ellig said. When MSU is delivered the lawsuit, it will land on the desk of Leslie Taylor, MSU legal counsel. Then the suit will be evaluated and the course of action determined.

“It’s difficult to speculate what that would be without seeing the suit,” said Ellig. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. The district court, according to its website, handles civil cases in excess of $12,000 in damages.