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Fourth Circuit Says Religious Accomodation Sufficient Factor in Employee Discharge to Allow Claim to Proceed

    Client Alerts
  • July 24, 2009

Under Title VII, employers are required to provide employees with reasonable accommodations related to their religious beliefs and practices.  In a new unpublished decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) found that religious accommodation issues materially contributed to an employer's decision to terminate an employee.

In EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, Grading, Paving, and Utils., Inc., the plaintiff was a member of the Hebrew Israelite sect that does not allow its members to work on Saturdays.  When he refused occasional Saturday work, he was given a series of written warnings by his employer.  The plaintiff was fired after he failed a drug test, and several months later, was involved in an accident while driving a company vehicle.  The employer characterized the termination as based on unacceptable job performance, including irregular attendance.

The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that the EEOC had offered insufficient evidence to infer that the termination was based on the missed Saturday work.  The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that the EEOC had provided adequate information to create a reasonable factual dispute.  The court rejected the employer's position that the termination was based on the other job performance issued not related to the Saturday absences.  The plaintiff raised a genuine issue of material fact that allowed his claim of failure to accommodate his religious beliefs to go to a jury.

The employer erred in this case by providing muddled reasoning for its termination decision.  If the dismissal was based on the accident alone, there was no reason to note the attendance issues in the termination documentation.  When an employer has clear and immediate justification for a termination decision, it does not need to confuse the issue by bringing into play other performance issue that did not materially contribute to the immediate decision.