Another employee of Hearthstone Homes is suing the company for religious and sex discrimination. Jammie D. Harms, formerly assistant to the CEO, is suing over her termination in 2009, saying that her supervisor, CEO John Smith, told her that babies could "remember things" prior to their birth, and that staff discussed her baby's "energy" during meetings. Ms. Harms alleges that Mr. Smith also asked a psychic about Ms. Harms' weigh gain during her pregnancy, and made comments such as "Are you hormonal today?" and, "You look like you've been rode hard and put away wet." (Well, that remark's just rudeness, as Elaine, the Ally McBeal receptionist would have said). More here from the Courthouse News Service.
A previous employee who sued over his termination objected to some of the company's practices, including something called MBE (Mind Body Energy), won his case in the 8th Circuit. Said the court,
To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination, a plaintiff must show he (1) has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, (2) informed the employer of such conflict, and (3) suffered an adverse employment action. See Seaworth v. Pearson, 203 F.3d 1056, 1057 (8th Cir.2000) (per curiam). If the plaintiff establishes these elements, the burden shifts to the employer to offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. See Turner v. Gonzales, 421 F.3d 688, 694 (8th Cir.2005). Thereafter, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show the reason offered by the employer is pretextual. Id.
In this case, the record indicates Ollis held sincere Christian religious beliefs. The record also provides some support for Ollis's contention HearthStone required Ollis to attend MBE sessions to “cleanse negative energy.” These sessions involved affirming the belief in past lives, participating in ritual-like activities, and reading Hindu and Buddhist literature. Ollis testified the MBE sessions conflicted with his religious beliefs. Thus, Ollis satisfied the first element of his prima facie case, that is, he has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with a HearthStone employment requirement.
Ollis also satisfied the second element of his prima facie case. Ollis testified he informed Smith and Langford of the conflict between the MBE requirements and his religious beliefs. Ollis testified he expressed his disagreement with HearthStone's core values at company meetings where Smith was present. Ollis told Smith he declined to participate in after-hours sessions designed to “clear some Mind Body Energy work.” Finally, Ollis satisfied the third element of his prima facie case, that is, he suffered an adverse employment action, termination.
HearthStone argues it terminated Ollis because of the sexual harassment complaint Audas filed against Ollis. However, Ollis's termination was for “poor leadership and lack of judgment,” without reference to sexual harassment. Testimony at trial indicates (1) Ollis canceled many of his MBE coaching sessions, (2) HearthStone kept a record of Ollis's attendance at these sessions, (3) attendance at the MBE meetings was reasonably perceived as an employment requirement, and (4) Ollis complained about MBE sessions. Based on this evidence, a reasonable jury could determine HearthStone's proffered reasons for Ollis's termination were pretextual. Although the evidence is thin, we find there was a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find in Ollis's favor on his claim of religious discrimination.
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show (1) he engaged in a statutorily protected activity, (2) an adverse action was taken against him by his employer, and (3) a causal connection between the adverse action and the protected activity. See Pope v. ESA Servs., Inc., 406 F.3d 1001, 1010 (8th Cir.2005). “Statutorily protected activity includes opposing an act of discrimination made unlawful by Title VII.” Id. If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. See Mershon v. St. Louis Univ., 442 F.3d 1069, 1074 (8th Cir.2006). The burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to show the reason offered by the employer is pretextual. Id.
The evidence at trial included testimony indicating: (1) MBE sessions conflicted with Ollis's religious beliefs; (2) Ollis expressed disagreement regarding the MBE concept to Langford and Smith; (3) HearthStone arguably required attendance at MBE meetings; and (4) HearthStone kept track of Ollis's attendance at MBE sessions. A jury reasonably could have concluded Ollis engaged in a statutorily protected activity, that is, Ollis complained to HearthStone about a conflict between the subject matter at the MBE sessions and his religious beliefs. Likewise, the jury reasonably could have concluded HearthStone terminated Ollis because of Ollis's complaints about attending and his failure to attend the MBE sessions. Finally, the jury reasonably could have concluded HearthStone's proffered reason of sexual harassment for terminating Ollis was mere pretext. A sufficient evidentiary basis exists for a reasonable jury to find in Ollis's favor on his retaliation claim.
There's more interesting stuff in the opinion. For example,
During Ollis's tenure at HearthStone, on certain occasions, HearthStone used Mind Body Energy (MBE) sessions to “cleanse [the] negative energy” from its employees in order to enhance their work performance. HearthStone encouraged and paid for its employees to attend an MBE course in California which required participants to read The Tibetan Book of Life, discussing Buddhist and Hindu teachings. HearthStone also required its employees to carry a card setting forth the company's core values. HearthStone's core values include spirituality and leaving behind all experiences from past lives, as well as the beliefs that everything in the universe is connected (including animals and past lives) and that uncorrected problems from past lives must be corrected in the present life.
HearthStone employed MBE coaches (including one who openly claimed to speak with animals) to assist employees in releasing negative energy from the body. HearthStone management encouraged employees to schedule appointments with these coaches for MBE sessions. Smith's wife, Pamela Winters-Smith (Winters-Smith), the director of associate self-development and manager of HearthStone's human resource department, kept a record of the employees' MBE appointments and attendance. John Risley (Risley), a former sales manager at HearthStone, testified he felt MBE sessions were a job requirement.
Ollis told Langford the MBE sessions made him uncomfortable, MBE was cult-like and conflicted with his religious beliefs, and he did not want to participate in MBE activities. Langford did not report Ollis's religious concerns to her boss, Smith, because Langford feared losing her job, if she did make such a report. Langford advised Ollis to make a standing appointment with the least offensive MBE coach, but to cancel those appointments later, in order to give management the impression “he bought into MBE concepts.” Ollis followed Langford's instructions and canceled five of his twelve appointments. Ollis further testified he also told Risley and Smith about his discomfort with MBE. Ollis expressed his disagreement with MBE at company sales meetings, and Ollis conveyed to Smith that MBE was fundamentally against his religious beliefs.
According to Smith, an employee's negative energy could be discovered either through a machine that tests a person's electromagnetic energy field or through a manual process called “muscle testing.” Muscle testing may require a person to extend his or her arms while answering “yes” or “no” questions. If the person's extended arms remain strong while questioned as someone pushes down on the arms, the answer is “yes,” whereas, weak arms indicate an answer of “no.” Another example of muscle testing is to place two fingers together and to answer “yes” or “no” questions. If the fingers remain together, the answer is “yes”; whereas, if they separate, the answer is “no.”
Smith used muscle testing to make business decisions. Smith equates muscle testing “to someone who may pray before they make decisions.” On one occasion, HearthStone experienced drainage problems in one of its subdivisions. Smith determined, through muscle testing, Langford's ancestors had perished on that land during the Ice Age and Langford unknowingly was back to defend the land on behalf of her ancestors. HearthStone required Langford to attend MBE coaching sessions to cleanse her negative energy. On another occasion, Smith determined a particular subdivision was carrying negative energy, and some employees participated in a ceremony where the employees stood in a circle holding hands to clear negative energy.
In late September 2003, HearthStone hired Sarah Audas (Audas) to work as a sales associate under Ollis's supervision. Approximately two weeks after Audas commenced work, Audas called Risley at home to tell him she was uncomfortable with certain sexual comments Ollis made to her and requested reassignment. Risley reported the situation to Winters-Smith, who met personally with Audas to discuss her complaint. Thereafter, the HearthStone management team (which included Winters-Smith, Risley, and Smith) met with Ollis to discuss Audas's complaint. The next day, the management team asked Ollis to prepare a written response. Ollis responded he had “crossed [the] boundaries” when he asked Audas several inappropriate questions while working together. Those questions included asking Audas about her “freakiest” sexual encounter, how long she had known her spouse before she had sex with him, how many sexual partners she had, and if she wore thong underwear.
Hmmm. Underwear questions. At a minimum, time to update the resume and call the lawyer.