Suit accuses PricewaterhouseCoopers of discrimination against Arab-American

TAMPA — A Muslim who was a PricewaterhouseCoopers senior manager was interviewed for an article about diversity in a company newsletter and then fired when he criticized his employer, his federal lawsuit says.

Issam Azziz, 37, who worked in the company's Tampa office, filed suit on Tuesday in U.S. District Court, alleging the company, now called PwC, discriminated against him because of his faith and race.

"What happened to me should not happen to any other person," Azziz said in a news conference outside federal court. "They've gone out of their way to destroy my life."

The company said in a statement, "These claims have no merit, and PwC intends to defend this case vigorously." The company otherwise declined to comment.

Azziz, an Arab-American of Moroccan descent who lives in Citrus Park, said he had worked a decade for the financial services company and, as a senior manager, was on track to become a partner. He said in the 2009 newsletter interview that "there is room for improvement" in the company's diversity practices and noted that when he recommended another qualified Muslim for a job, his request was ignored, the lawsuit says.

The comments were not included in the article, Azziz said. Three days later, he said he received a "performance note" from his superiors criticizing his treatment of subordinates.

Azziz was fired in July 2009, his suit says, despite "laudatory" performance evaluations and a 2004 company recognition called the "Great Performance Award."

The lawsuit claims the company orchestrated his firing from a second firm that later hired him and has effectively blackballed him from getting any other job in his profession.

The company "retaliated against (Azziz) in reprisal for his opposition to (PwC's) racial discrimination against persons who are Muslim or of Arab ethnicity," the suit says.

Lakeland attorney Peter F. Helwig, who represents Azziz, said his client unsuccessfully tried to resolve the case with the company. By the time Azziz hired Helwig, it was too late to file a complaint about his termination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the attorney said.

So Azziz instead filed a retaliation complaint, which was investigated by the Florida Commission on Human Relations, Helwig said.

That agency found there was not sufficient evidence to sustain the complaint, Helwig said, and the federal EEOC simply adopted that finding.

Helwig said the EEOC makes a finding of discrimination in only 5 percent of the cases it receives and, in any case, commission findings are not admissible in court. That figure could not be confirmed late Tuesday.

Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations' Tampa chapter, accompanied Azziz at the news conference and told reporters his group would closely monitor the litigation.

Reach William R. Levesque at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Suit accuses PricewaterhouseCoopers of discrimination against Arab-American 08/09/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 11:47pm]

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