The Supreme Court Redefines the Religious Accommodation Obligation for Employers
On June 29, 2023, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act must be provided to employees or prospective employees unless the employer is able to demonstrate that the burden is substantial. The Court rejected the “de minimus” standard as a misreading of the Court’s precedent in TWA v. Hardison.
Background of the Case. Groff v. Dejoy involves a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service who is a strict observer of the Sunday Sabbath. For the first several years of his employment with the USPS, the carrier was exempted from Sunday work (which involved package deliveries pursuant to a USPS contract with Amazon) as a reasonable accommodation.
The USPS subsequently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the carriers’ union that resulted in the carrier being required to work Sundays. The Postmaster of the facility tried to find others to cover the Sunday shifts, but that was not always possible and the carrier was scheduled to work a number of Sundays. Because he repeatedly failed to report to work, he was disciplined. Moreover, his refusal to work Sundays required others to cover those shifts, including the Postmaster himself, may have resulted in increased overtime pay, increased the workload for those working, and created resentment among his co-workers.
The carrier eventually resigned based on the lack of accommodation for his religious beliefs and sued the USPS. The trial court found that, as a matter of law, the carrier’s legal claims failed. This ruling was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, leading to the appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Prior Standard. Under Title VII, a private employer with 15+ employees must provide reasonable accommodations for employees’ sincerely held religious observances that conflict with work requirements, absent an undue hardship. While this requirement sounds very much like the reasonable accommodation requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the interpretation by most of courts of the standard for establishing an undue hardship under Title VII has been far less than under the ADA.
According to Supreme Court precedent as interpreted before today, “undue hardship” existed when there was more than a de minimis (or minimal) cost to the employer. Such cost need not be economic. Courts have found undue hardship where there were negative impacts on productivity or quality, personnel or overtime costs, increased workload for other employees, and reduced employee morale.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling. The Supreme Court held that to establish that a religious accommodation presents an undue hardship, employers must present evidence that the burden is “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Alito explained that, in common parlance, a hardship is, at minimum, something that is “hard to bear.” Further, for a hardship to be “undue” as naturally understood by its dictionary definition, “the requisite burden, privation or adversity must rise to an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable level.’” (citing several dictionaries).
The Court stated, “What matters more than a favored synonym for ‘undue hardship’ (which is the actual context) is that courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular impact in light of the ‘nature, size and operating cost of [an] employer.’” (citing the Solicitor General’s brief).
The Court declined to accept alternating invitations by the parties to the case that it either adopt the undue hardship standard enunciated by cases under the ADA or the EEOC’s guidance interpreting Hardison and religious accommodations. Neither of these interpretations has been examined by courts in the context of the standard enunciated today, so the Court found it more appropriate to allow courts to apply the “substantial burden” standard in the context of specific cases. The Court provided the following “guideposts” for future analysis.
First, courts should assess the impact of the proposed accommodation on the conduct of the employer’s business. While impacts on coworkers are relevant, they are not dispositive.
Second, Title VII requires that the employer not simply assess the employee’s requested accommodation and reach a conclusion, such as that it will lead to increased overtime pay (which, by itself, may not be an undue burden for some employers). Instead, employers must consider whether other accommodations may be appropriate. In the context of scheduling accommodations such as that at issue in this case, considering other options such as voluntary shift swapping, is also necessary.
The Court remanded the case to allow the lower court to consider the facts of the case in light of the Court’s clarified standard.
Practical Impact of the Case. Employers must now review their current practices for considering religious accommodations (and take a fresh look at pending requests). The need to demonstrate a substantial burden before denying an accommodation is a significant change but does not place employers in “unfamiliar territory.” As with analysis under the ADA, inconvenience to other employees is not dispositive and costs of granting the accommodation must be considered in light of the size of the employer and its overall resources, financial and otherwise.
As always, if you need assistance with adapting your policies or practices to this reinterpreted accommodation standard or addressing a pending accommodation request, your Shawe Rosenthal attorneys are here to assist.