Ex-SMART worker of Iraqi descent wins $450,000 for racial slurs

By Niraj Warikoo
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission awarded Mazyn Barash of Farmington Hills $450,000.
Eight years after he filed a complaint, a Farmington Hills man of Iraqi descent has been awarded $450,000 by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission for racial abuse and threats he suffered while working at the SMART bus system.

In its decision, the commission also ordered that SMART stop “discriminating against any employee” and to not create “a hostile work environment.” Mazyn Barash, now 55, was subjected to ethnic slurs such as “sand n—–” and “rag head.” The slurs against Barash — a bus mechanic who is Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) — started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks and increased around the time the Iraq war began in 2003. One time, the report said, he received a letter at work with a racial epithet warning he would be “hit,” the commission found.

Barash said Friday that he “felt relief” at the order announced last week. At the same time, he’s upset that it took so long. SMART’s attorneys strongly contested Barash’s complaints, putting Barash through 17 days of hearings that took place over a year and a half. The hearing officer assigned to the case, Bloomfield Hills attorney Barry Goldman, took 18 months to release his decision.

In 2010, he ruled against Barash, saying that the slurs Barash suffered were understandable because America was at war. But the commission overturned his decision in October. The damages were announced last week. “SMART showed absolutely no remorse and was still trying to justify the discrimination,” Barash said. He believes SMART wasted public resources in fighting the case rather than ending the abuse.

A spokeswoman for SMART, Beth Gibbons, did not comment Friday. Goldman was not available for comment. SMART, the suburban bus system in metro Detroit, has 30 days to appeal the case to a Michigan court.

Barash left SMART in 2004. The commission’s order awards Barash $150,000 for mental and emotional distress, $68,000 for lost wages and $124,000 in fees for his attorneys. With interest from the time Barash filed the initial complaint in June 2004, that comes to more than $450,000.

The commission report says the abuse started in fall 2001, when a colleague stapled a photo of Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, to Barash’s time card. It got worse in 2003 as the U.S. turned its focus on Iraq. One co-worker talked in front of Barash about killing all Iraqis.

“I was embarrassed, and I was afraid,” Barash said.

In his 2010 decision, Goldman wrote that the racial abuse Barash suffered was not an issue because: “The United States was in a war. … Many Americans had strong feelings about that war and the right to express those feelings.”