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“Come To Jesus” Meeting With Muslim Employee Was Not Evidence of Discrimination

Posted by Eric Parzianello on March 19, 2010

A recent Newsweek article noted that there has been a 17 percent jump in the number of age-discrimination complaints filed since the recession began in 2007. Wrongful discharge cases, in general, appear to also be on the rise. Many have no merit, as evidenced by a recent Michigan Court of Appeals case involving alleged religious discrimination against a Muslim.

After being terminated from his employment by a joint venture between Lear Corporation and Comer Holdings, Yussef Johnson sued the joint venture and Comer for breach of contract and religious discrimination under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act based upon Johnson’s Muslim religion.

Johnson testified that the owner of Comer promised him in an interview that he would only be terminated “for cause.” However, it was undisputed that after his interview, he signed a letter offer and an employment application which both stated that the employment relationship was terminable at the will of either party. Because under Michigan law, an employee cannot rely on a prior oral agreement for just-cause employment where he later signs an agreement that expressly provides for employment at-will, the trial court properly dismissed the breach of contract claim.

As to the claim that he was subjected to religious discrimination because he was a Muslim, Johnson was required to establish that he was discharged or otherwise discriminated against with respect “to employment, compensation, or a term, condition, or privilege of employment, because of religion . . . .” In one of the incidents Johnson cited as proof that the firing decision was motivated by a religious bias, a supervisor told Johnson that he was going to have a “come to Jesus” meeting with Johnson shortly before Johnson’s termination.

The Court of Appeals patiently explained in its decision that a “come to Jesus meeting” is a commonly used phrase which refers “to a meeting where someone intends to lecture another person about some improper behavior and ask them to “shape up or ship out”; it can also refer to “dressing someone down” or calling him or her “on the carpet.” The Court then concluded that no reasonable jury could find that the statement or the other alleged incidents reflected a bias on Harris’ part either in favor of Christians or against Muslims and affirmed the dismissal of Johnson’s case.

Employers should take note of the significance of an agreement that expressly provides for employment at-will. Additionally, despite the victory for the employer in this case regarding the religious comment, owners would be well advised to have their management team trained in basic discrimination laws.


2 Responses to ““Come To Jesus” Meeting With Muslim Employee Was Not Evidence of Discrimination”

  1. Tanenbaum said

    His termination may have been valid, but whether it’s a commonly-accepted phrase or not, it would do employers well to remember that not everyone is going to take a phrase like “come to Jesus” in the same way. Someone who doesn’t know the vernacular could take it in a way other than was intended, potentially making things sticky for the employer.

    • Eric Parzianello said

      True; you’d find the dissent of this Michigan Supreme Court case interesting regarding the issue of usage of colloquial expressions. In that case, the phrase “you’re getting too old for this sh**” ended up being a problem for the employer in an age discrimination case.

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