Law360 (January 29, 2021, 4:07 PM EST) -- Sam's West Inc., which does business as Sam's Club, has been hit with a workplace bias suit by a worker who claimed she endured multiple forms of discrimination that left her "dejected and humiliated" and ultimately fired and battling COVID-19 without health benefits.
In a complaint removed Thursday to New Jersey federal court, Nadia Salem, 55, alleged the Walmart-owned warehouse store failed to accommodate her religion and disability, passed her over for promotions in favor of younger, less-experienced workers and falsely accused her of misusing her employee discount. Salem claimed she was targeted for her age and being Muslim.
During the final month of her nearly 12-year career at the company's Secaucus, New Jersey, location, Salem alleged, she was reprimanded for wearing a mask to protect herself from the coronavirus. Then she was fired for bogus reasons, according to the complaint, only to learn later that she'd contracted the virus and her insurance had been canceled.
"Sam's Club routinely treated Salem with such an egregious level of disrespect that plaintiff felt dejected and humiliated, and valueless in the eyes of the company," the complaint said.
Salem, who is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and attorney fees, worked for Sam's West in various roles between November 2008 and March 2020, according to her complaint.
For each year of her employment at Sam's Club, Salem claimed, she requested that she work the earlier of the two daily shifts at the store during the month of Ramadan, an annual Muslim observance. She also asked that she have off each Friday, the Islamic day of worship or, in the alternative, to be allowed to pray at a local mosque from 1 to 2 p.m., the complaint said.
But the company denied all of her requests, and often scheduled her to work the closing shift on nights during Ramadan, according to the complaint. By contrast, the company liberally adjusted the schedules of non-Muslim workers for trivial matters, the complaint said.
Sam's Club also refused to advance the career of Salem, a cashier who progressed to a leadership position in the store's cash office, despite her "competent, efficient and effective manner," the complaint said.
One month after her promotion in 2019, Sam's Club demoted her, reduced her wages and replaced her with a supervisor 15 years younger with no cash office experience, the complaint said. The position was refilled twice after that with employees who had no cash office experience, according to the complaint.
Sam's Club routinely moved Salem around to different positions, often ones that entailed menial tasks like cleaning floors, yet often advanced to the careers of younger, non-Muslim employees, the complaint said.
In another snub, Sam's Club refused to accommodate her request for light duties even though many existed throughout the store, after she permanently injured her back and neck in a car accident in 2017, according to the complaint.
Leading up to Salem's firing in March, Sam's Club falsely accused her of improperly allowing a customer to use her employee club membership card to get discounts, and also gave her conflicting directives about purchasing a discounted treadmill, the complaint said.
Also in March, as Salem began wearing a face mask to shield herself from the virus, the company told her the mask was making customers uncomfortable, asked her to remove it and made her sign an agreement "on the spot and under duress," the complaint said.
The company terminated her employment on March 28, citing the alleged unauthorized use of her discount and the treadmill purchase, even though Salem ended up voiding the transaction, the complaint said.
Salem was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early April and was then "shocked" to learn that her health benefits had been terminated on the day she was fired, in the midst of a pandemic.
Salem asserts claims under multiple provisions under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, as well as for defamation. She names as defendants Sam's West Inc. and several unidentified individuals and corporations.
Walmart denies the allegations, according to Randy Hargrove, the company's senior director of national media relations.
"Walmart does not condone or tolerate discrimination of any kind and we have a long-standing practice of accommodating our associates' religious beliefs and practices. While it may be impossible to determine where or how someone contracts the coronavirus, we have taken steps across the country to protect our associates and customers," Hargrove said in an email to Law360.
"This includes, among other things, providing masks and gloves to associates and requiring that associates wear a face covering at work. We deny Ms. Salem's allegations and will respond with the court as appropriate," Hargrove said.
In an email, Salem's attorneys, Robert A. Skoblar and Dom Sango, saidSalem was a "very dedicated employee who was severely mistreated and discriminated against by her employer."
Salem is represented by Robert A. Skoblar and Dom Sango of Skoblar Law PC.
Sam's Club is represented by David S. Kim of Ford Harrison LLP.
The case is Nadia Salem v. Sam's West Inc. et al., case no. 2:21-cv-01350, in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
--Editing by Andrew Cohen.
Update: This article has been updated to include commentary from Walmart.
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