For 26 years, Susan H. Abeles, an Orthodox Jew, requested to take time off from her job with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to observe the major Jewish holidays and was granted annual leave by her supervisors with no problems.
Then in 2013, Abeles, of Silver Spring, was suspended for observing Passover, according to her lawsuit filed against the MWAA and her two supervisors.
The suspension was an act of religious discrimination, she contends in a civil complaint filed by her attorney, Nathan Lewin of the Washington law firm Lewin and Lewin. The complaint was initially filed in federal court in Washington and moved in June to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
An MWAA spokesman and the defendants’ attorney declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The complaint states that while Abeles was an air traffic data technician she reminded her superiors by email of her earlier notification that she would be absent from work on the final two days of Passover.
When Abeles returned to work, she allegedly was “ambushed” by her supervisors, who accused her of being AWOL for not obtaining approval for her time off, Lewin said.
Abeles was told she would be suspended for five days, and the action was approved by the chief financial officer of the MWAA, according to the complaint. Her employment situation following the suspension became so intolerable that she retired early, the complaint maintains.
She retired in May 2013, according to the MWAA.
“It’s a very straightforward case of somebody being punished for taking off on a Jewish holiday,” said Lewin, in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “The MWAA can’t cavalierly penalize someone for having taken off on a Jewish holiday when they’ve given adequate notice, which the complaint states.”
The complaint accuses the MWAA and two supervisors allegedly involved in the incident of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that, among other things, prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of religion. According to the complaint, Abeles is seeking reinstatement in her job, monetary damages and other relief.
The defendants’ motion to dismiss the case will be argued Friday in federal court in Alexandria, and it will be up to the judge to decide if the case will proceed.
The defendants are represented by the Washington law firm of Friedlander Misler.
Lewin said that he helped draft in 1972 the statute in the Civil Rights Act that requires employers to accommodate religious observances.
“We got a provision that passed the Congress and was signed by the president that says that religious discrimination includes observance and practice so that somebody can’t be penalized in their employment because they engage in religious observance such as observing the last two days of Passover, and that’s what this case involves,” Lewin said.
Lewin said the case has national significance due to the religious discrimination allegations.
“This is not some esoteric holiday. We’re talking about Passover here.”