Jury Awards $5.1M in Religious Discrimination Suit

May 07, 2018

After a three-week trial, a federal jury in Brooklyn has awarded $5.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 employees of United Health Programs of America, Inc, and its parent Cost Containment Group, Inc (CCG), finding that the workers had been coerced into engaging in religious practices of "Onionhead" or "Harnessing Happiness" in violation of Title VII. The jury also found the employer violated Title VII when it created a hostile work environment for nine of the workers and fired one employee who opposed these practices.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will seek injunctive relief against CCG to prevent future violations and to obtain back pay for the discharged employee for her wrongful termination. These issues will be determined by the judge.

Coerced religious practices. CCG employees were forced to engage in a variety of religious practices at work, including prayer, religious workshops, and spiritual cleansing rituals. These practices were part of a belief system called "Harnessing Happiness" or "Onionhead," created by the aunt of CCG's CEOs. The aunt was employed by CCG as a consultant and was fully supported by CCG's upper management. She spent substantial time in the company's offices beginning in 2007, implemented the religious activities at the workplace, and had a role in employee hiring and firing. Nine of the employees said the religiously-infused atmosphere created a hostile work environment for them, and the jury agreed.

The jury also found that one employee was fired for opposing these practices.

The company had described the "Harnessing Happiness" program as a "conflict resolution" tool, but the evidence showed that it involved chanting, praying, and discussions of matters such as divine destinies, the "Source," purity, and blessings. Finding in September 2016 that it was indeed a religion, the court pointed out that employees were required to engage in praying and chanting in the workplace.

In the words of one employee, employees "would have to sit there and hold hands and close our eyes and she’d like chant and she would just, you know, pray to these spirits, whoever they were, to keep us safe." In addition, some employees described being told to burn candles and incense to "cleanse the workplace." Employees also were expected to hold hands, hug, kiss, and express love at workplace meetings. One employee described a work-sponsored retreat where "[a]t the end of the meeting we all had to hold hands in a circle. We had to lift up our hands three times and chant love, love, love."