Fired Muslim awarded $3.2 million in discrimination suit against Loma Linda University Medical Center

Fired Muslim awarded $3.2 million in discrimination suit against Loma Linda University Medical Center

A jury has awarded $3.2 million in damages to a Muslim who claims he was harassed for years by his supervisors at Loma Linda University Medical Center and ultimately fired because of his Islamic beliefs, his lawyer said Wednesday.


The award to Hugo Lizzaraga, 44, who worked 20 years as a warehouse employee at the hospital, capped a six-week-long trial in San Bernardino Superior Court and five days of deliberation. The verdict was announced Monday.


“We are happy this hard-working jury resolved this injustice in his favor,” said Lizarraga’s attorney, Todd Harrison “He was courageous for many years and stood up to Loma Linda, which is the largest employer in San Bernardino County. This is truly a David-versus-Goliath story.”


Loma Linda disagrees with the jury’s verdict, said hospital spokeswoman Kelsey Tyree Culler.


“LLU Medical Center did not discharge the employee because of his religious beliefs, but because of his reported threatening conduct,” she said. “LLU Medical Center complies with and honors federal and state law regarding discrimination and harassment and does not tolerate it in the workplace.”


It was unclear whether the hospital plans to appeal the jury verdict.


For more than six years, Lizarraga, who lives in San Bernardino County, was subjected to religious and disability discrimination by his supervisors, Jerry Strode and Jose Gonzalez, as well as employees in the medical center’s Human Resources Department, according to the lawsuit filed in September 2016.


Lizarraga worked at the hospital for more than a decade without experiencing harassment, the suit says.


However, in 2012 Lizarraga began to encounter hostility from Strode and Gonzalez after he converted to Islam, broke his thumb at work and was placed on modified duty by his physician, according to the suit.


The complaint contends Strode and Gonzalez harassed Lizarraga through 2015 because of his Islamic beliefs, at times referring to him as a terrorist and calling him other derogatory names, and complained he was “too slow” due to his medical condition..


“Mr Strode and/or Mr. Gonzalez often told the plaintiff, ‘Why don’t you quit?’ or ‘You are going to get fired anyway,’ ”  the lawsuit alleges.


After  Lizarraga’s work restrictions were lifted, Strode and Gonzalez increased his workload and assigned him tasks that should have been undertaken by other workers, says the complaint.


“Despite this unreasonable and unfair workload, plaintiff still completed it, ” according to the suit. “Still, Mr. Strode and Mr. Gonzalez would unjustly complain to the plaintiff that he was too slow and continued to tell him he should quit.”


Lizarraga complained to LLU Medical Center’s Human Resources Department about Strode and Gonzalez’s behavior.


“In response, Human Resources ignored plaintiff’s complaints,” says the suit. “Ultimately, Human Resources told plaintiff that they had spoken with Mr. Strode, that nothing would be done and that plaintiff should just go back to work.”


Several employees confirmed the behavior of Strode, who was fired from the hospital in March 2015, two months before he was scheduled to retire, Harrison said. Gonzalez continues to work at the hospital, he added.


Neither man could be reached for comment.


In February 2016, Lizarraga was summoned to the LLU Medical Center’s security office and told he was being placed on suspension, but was not given a reason. A San Bernadino County sheriff’s deputy arrived at the office and asked if Lizarraga had made terrorist threats against the hospital.


“Plaintiff unequivocally denied doing so,” says the lawsuit.


The deputy ran Lizarraga’s driver’s license through a database and determined he didn’t pose a threat or have a criminal record.


Still, the hospital kept Lizarraga on administrative leave, eventually notifying him he had been accused of telling a co-worker what he would have done differently in the Dec. 2, 2015, terrorist shooting at San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center that killed 14 people and wounded 21 others.


Finally, Lizarraga was fired from his job in March 2016.


Hospital officials used the terrorist shooting as an excuse to terminate Lizarraga because he was viewed as a troublemaker, Harrison said.


“The hospital preyed on the fears about Muslims in the shooting which occurred only a block from the warehouse where Lizzagra worked, he said. “An official testified at trial that Lizzagra’s religion was considered in deciding whether he should be fired. And that sealed the deal with the jury.”