Jewish lawyer wins big discrimination case for Arab

Notably, it was a Jewish American lawyer who helped an Arab-American plaintiff win what is believed to be one of the largest employment discrimination verdicts for an Arab-American in the country.

Now, the nearly $3 million judgment awarded Ahmad Abu-Aziz last week has him hailing the decision not only as a civil rights triumph, but also a hopeful sign of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

"If you can magnify this relationship from a person to a group, from a group to a whole community, from a whole community to a whole country, that's where the roots of understanding are," said Abu-Aziz, a Jordanian national and a Muslim who sued United Airlines, his former employer.

"We both are human. We are one race."

In 1994, Abu-Aziz, 29, applied for and obtained an entry-level position at United Airlines. He worked at Oakland International Airport.

During the first two months of his employment, Abu-Aziz contends he was subjected to a hostile and offensive working environment, including derogatory comments from co-workers about Arab and Muslim hygiene habits and religious observance. He was allegedly asked how many wives he had back home and told he looked like a terrorist.

When Abu-Aziz complained to his supervisor about such comments, he said the supervisor trivialized his concerns and did nothing to address them.

Within six weeks, Abu-Aziz was terminated, with United management allegedly relying on statements from Abu-Aziz' co-workers accusing him of consuming alcohol on the job and stealing company property.

The statements were false, according to Abu-Aziz' attorney John Riley.

Last week, a jury of five women and seven men in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland agreed that United had subjected Abu-Aziz to a hostile working environment because of his national origin and religion.

The jury further agreed that the company had terminated Abu-Aziz' employment in retaliation for his complaints to supervisors.

Jury members awarded the plaintiff $246,000 in economic damages and $50,000 in emotional distress damages and assessed punitive damages against United in the amount of $2,670,000.

"I feel vindicated," said Abu-Aziz, a resident of Fremont who now works as a mechanic for DHL at the San Francisco International Airport. "There is justice for us in this country as Muslims and Arabs."

"To be prejudiced [against] because I come from the Middle East was a terrible experience."

Abu-Aziz said a number of attorneys turned his case down before Riley, a vice president of Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum and president of the Jacques and Esther Reutlinger Foundation, decided to take it on.

Riley, who practices solo in San Francisco, said he is certainly not the first Jewish American attorney to defend an Arab client. But he believes an increasing openness to anti-Arab prejudice in this country makes this a particularly significant case.

"People can go in the workplace and say, `You look like a terrorist' and not realize how offensive it is," Riley said. "I think that's somewhat fed by things like the Oklahoma bombing." Initially, many assumed that the perpetrators were Arabs.

Like Abu-Aziz, Riley sees the pair's relationship as a positive sign that groups often at odds can work toward shared ends.

"We have a common goal here," he says, "that everybody be treated equally."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.