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Chef in Hot Water with 1.6 Million Verdict for Sexual Orientation and Religious Discrimination

On March 20, 2014, Mirella Salemi a New York chef, was awarded a $1.6 million verdict after her employer, defendant Edward Globokar, discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation and religion.  The New York Appeals court ordered Edward to pay Salemi $400,000 in compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages.

Salemi sued under the New York City Human Rights Law alleging that Globokar compelled her and other staff members to attend weekly prayer meetings.  The staff felt that the meetings were mandatory and if they did not attend them they would lose their job. At those staff meetings, homosexuality was constantly referred to as a sin. Plaintiff who is a lesbian, was told repeatedly that “gay people were going to hell.” Moreover, according to Salemi, she was told to dress more “effeminately” and was encouraged to marry and have children. Plaintiff also alleged that she was retaliated against for standing up to her employers offensive comments, not attending some workplace prayer meetings and for refusing to fire a co-employee because of his sexual orientation.

Defendant Globokar is owner of a chain of Mexican restaurants in New York.  Globokar attempted to argue that he was exercising his First Amendment rights. However, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division’s Manhattan-based First Department said that “[t]he trial court properly protected Globokar’s First Amendment rights by instructing the jury that he had ‘a right to express his religious beliefs and practice religion, providing that he does not discriminate against his employees based on religion or sexual orientation.”

Salemi’s attorney named this decision the largest employment verdict this year in New York. And while the damages hit nine figures, the court nonetheless found that the verdict did “not materially deviate from awards for emotional distress rendered in similar cases”, and that the punitive damages award was not “grossly excessive” in light of extensive evidence of defendants’ discriminatory conduct.

If you believe that you have been the victim of sexual orientation or religious discrimination please contact our office at (212) 323-6980.

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