Sanford Heisler Sharp Files $10 Million Religious & Age Discrimination, Retaliation Suit Against Teachers College, Columbia University for Muslim Faculty Member Denied Tenure-Track Positions

NEW YORK, April 17, 2024 (GlobeNewswire) — Lawyers from Sanford Heisler Sharp today filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against Teachers College, Columbia University on behalf of Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, a long-serving professor at the College. The Complaint alleges that Teachers College discriminated against Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess, a 48-year-old Muslim woman, by repeatedly denying her a promotion to a tenure-track role because of her Muslim religion and age. According to the Complaint, the College also retaliated against her for reporting the discrimination. Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess is represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp Chairman David Sanford, Partner Melinda Koster, and Senior Litigation Counsel Alok Nadig, as well as Deborah Rhode Civil Rights Fellow Hoda Katebi.

A Bosniak Muslim survivor of her nation’s genocide who immigrated to the United States, Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess is the author of The Cat I Never Named, A True Story of Love, War and Survival, an award-winning memoir of the Bosnian War that is taught in schools throughout the United States.

“Teachers College’s mistreatment of Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess demonstrates that it is paying lip service to its professed values of diversity and inclusion,” said Sanford. “Rather than provide her with academic positions commensurate with her achievements, the College has kept Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess in non-tenure-track roles for over a decade and subjected her to discrimination.”

Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess is an Associate Professor of Practice at the College. She joined the faculty as a lecturer in the College’s International and Transcultural Studies (ITS) Department in 2012 and has outpaced the contributions of both tenure-track and tenured faculty members. Nonetheless, the College has repeatedly rejected her applications for tenure-track positions and dissuaded her from applying for such roles because of her religion and age.

For example, when Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess applied for a tenure-track position in 2012, a Hiring Committee member probed into her Muslim background. After Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess confirmed her Muslim identity, the College rejected her and selected a non-Muslim candidate. When she sought another tenure-track position in 2013, the ITS Department Chair conveyed that the effort would be futile. This proved accurate, as the College selected a non-Muslim candidate again. When Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess met with the Department Chair in 2014 to seek guidance, the Department Chair told her that she would never receive support for tenure-track because she is Muslim.

In the fall of 2022, when Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess expressed interest in a tenure-track position within the Adult Learning & Leadership (ALL) Program of the College’s Organization and Leadership Department, the Program Director dissuaded Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess from applying due to her age and told her that she was not a “spring chicken” and that the Program Director preferred someone “young” with “youth” and “energy.” The College ultimately hired a non-Muslim, younger individual.

During her time at the College, Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess reported discrimination to leaders at all levels, including President Tom Bailey, then-Provost Stephanie Rowley, and William Baldwin (who served as Vice Provost and later Interim Provost). The College then retaliated against her. For example, it cut her base salary in 2023 with no explanation. Then, in January 2024, it denied her promotion request and falsely claimed that she had no peer-reviewed publications; in fact, she has 19 (one of which is currently in press).

According to the Complaint, it is believed that no Muslim academic has held a tenure-track or tenured position at Teachers College even though the College has received applications from qualified Muslims.

“We understand that exclusion from tenure-track positions is part and parcel of the systematic discrimination that the College has wielded against Muslim faculty, employees, and students,” said Koster. “The absence of Muslims from tenured and tenure-track positions at Teachers College – the oldest, largest graduate school of education in the nation – speaks volumes. We allege that Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess’s rights have been ignored and her career has languished as a result of this discrimination.”

The Complaint asserts claims of religious discrimination, age discrimination, and retaliation and alleges violations of the New York City Human Rights Law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The Complaint seeks an injunction installing Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess into a tenure-track position, the award of damages in the form of back pay, front pay (if the injunction is denied), compensatory and punitive damages, and liquidated damages in an amount of no less than $10 million, as well as litigation costs and expenses and interest. A jury trial is demanded.

“During her time at Teachers College, few, if any, of its tenured or tenure-track professors achieved such an incredible constellation of accomplishments,” said Nadig. “Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess is highly qualified for a tenure-track position and has been deprived of the many benefits that accompany tenure-track status. Teachers College needs to immediately rectify this injustice.”

About Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP
Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a national public interest class-action litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. Sanford Heisler Sharp focuses on employment discrimination, Title IX, wage and hour, whistleblower, criminal/sexual violence, and financial services matters. The firm has recovered over $1 billion for its clients through many verdicts and settlements. The National Law Journal recognized Sanford Heisler Sharp as 2021 Employment Rights Firm of the Year, 2021 Human Rights Firm of the Year, and 2022 Civil Rights Firm of the Year.

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For more information, contact Jamie Moss, newsPRos, at 201-788-0142 or [email protected].