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Death not end of line, Muslim’s MTA bias suit goes on

Published: April 6, 2014

Publication: Daily News

By Pete Donohue

Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Sandra Townes rejected a MTA motion to dismiss the lawsuit Stephanie Lewis filed in 2004. Lewis was transferred off her bus route and eventually fired for not agreeing to put a NYC Transit division logo on her headscarf due to religious reasons.

Bus driver Stephanie Lewis refused to cover her religious headscarf or place an MTA logo on it.

A Muslim-American bus driver who refused to cover her religious head scarf or slap an MTA logo on it died in poverty more than two years ago — but her decade-long fight for justice can continue, a judge has ruled.

Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Sandra Townes rejected a Metropolitan Transportation Authority motion to dismiss a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit Stephanie Lewis filed in 2004 after she was transferred off her bus route to a lower-paying job in a depot.

The MTA fired Lewis the next year, leaving the diabetic not only without an income but without health insurance to pay for her insulin, Omar Mohammedi, her lawyer said. Her health deteriorated and she had a leg amputated before dying in 2012, Mohammedi said.

I would rather die dignified than compromise my religious beliefs. 

“She couldn’t afford anything,” Mohammedi said. “She died in debt. She used to tell me, ‘I would rather die dignified than compromise my religious beliefs.’ I promised to her I would continue fighting for her and one day I go to her grave and tell her justice was done for her.”

If successful, the lawsuit would result in financial damages being paid to Lewis’ estate and children.

Lewis always wore her khimar in public and when she was hired by the MTA she provided management with a letter of explanation from her imam. Her religion required her body be completely covered when in public except for her hands and face.

The mother of three now-adult children, Lewis worked for 13 years without being subject of any disciplinary actions.

Lewis was fired in 2005 for not agreeing to put a NYC Transit division logo on her headscarf.

But when she returned from a medical leave of absence in February 2003, she was told that she had to remove her headscarf or cover it with an MTA-issued cap. She refused on religious grounds and was transferred to a depot where she was assigned cleaning and bus parking duties. Although her pay rate remained the same, she lost seniority privileges and 10 to 12 hours of overtime each week, another lawyer, Arthur Schwartz, said.

It was a hostile setting, according to the lawsuit, with one dispatcher telling Lewis she should work at a fast-food restaurant because they wouldn’t care if she had “rag” on her head.

Unlike any other worker, Lewis had to sign in and out for bathroom breaks, the lawsuit says. She had to sign in and out of work on time sheets created just for her and a handful other Muslim workers, the lawsuit says.

In a 2003 interview with The Daily News, Lewis said: “It’s kind of stressful. I have to laugh to keep from crying. It hurts.I just want to work, do my job honestly, make my money and go home to my family.”

Later that year, Lewis tripped in the depot and suffered a back injury that made it impossible for her to keep driving buses. She applied to be reclassified as a station agent, the lawsuit states. After a medical absence, she went through the training but was fired on her first shift in 2005 for not agreeing to put a NYC Transit division logo on her headscarf, according to the suit.

A contract arbitrator later ordered the MTA to rehire Lewis, but the authority never put her back on the payroll or gave her an assignment.

The U.S. Justice Department in 2004 also filed a discrimination lawsuit against the MTA on behalf of Lewis and other Muslim and Sikh transit workers. The MTA settled the case with most of the group two years ago, agreeing to revise its dress code and drop the logo requirement. Lewis didn’t settle as her lawsuit also includes charges of improper firing, retaliation and other abuses in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act and state human rights laws.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the authority is reviewing Townes’ March 31st decision.

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