A jury has awarded $5.1 million to 10 former workers of a Syosset medical-plan firm and its parent company for forcing the employees to participate in religious practices, a federal agency said Thursday.
United Health Programs of America Inc., which provides discount medical plans, and its parent, Cost Containment Group Inc., were sued in 2014 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission alleged that the companies subjected employees “to a hostile work environment based on religion” and that employers retaliated when workers refused to participate. After a three-week trial, a Brooklyn jury on Wednesday unanimously found the companies guilty and liable for damages.
A lawyer for the companies took issue with the verdict and left open the possibility of an appeal.
Amy Traub, a partner at BakerHostetler in Manhattan, commended the jury for its “hard work,” but said, “We disagree with the finding that any claimant was subjected to a hostile work environment.” She added, “Our clients will weigh their options for further litigation of the claims, if any, once a judgment is made final.”
The jury award will be subject to some “modifications,” EEOC trial attorney Chinyere Ezie said. There are monetary caps on awards under both Title VIl of the Civil Rights Act, which the EEOC enforces, and under state laws covering the legal actions filed by private lawyers for some of the employees, she said.
The companies didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment.
The lawsuit covered violations from 2007 to 2012, Ezie said.
The lawsuit said that the companies required employees to participate in practices of the Harnessing Happiness/Onionhead group, a nonprofit whose website says it is “dedicated to teaching problem solving skills, conflict resolution and appropriate behavior through emotional awareness and intelligence.”
Denali, the founder and head of the group, who is also the aunt of the companies’ owner, would be flown by the company from California to Long Island to conduct meetings, the complaint says. As part of that practice, employees had to “pray, hold hands in a prayer circle, read spiritual texts, light candles and burn incense to remove bad energy,” the complaint says.
The employees were also required to thank God for their employment and to say “I love you” to colleagues and management, the lawsuit says.
One employee, Faith Pabon, was terminated by Denali the Monday after she refused to take part in some of the group activities during a company spa weekend in Connecticut in 2012, the complaint says. The other workers were fired or quit, according to the lawsuit.
“This verdict makes clear how federal laws bar employers from imposing religion on employees in the workplace,” Ezie said.