On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously clarified the legal test used by courts to determine whether an employer has complied with its obligation under Title VII to respond to an employee’s request for a workplace accommodation based on religious beliefs. The court declined to overturn its prior decision on this issue, but it said that federal courts had misinterpreted that case and its explanation of the standard used to determine whether the request presents an undue hardship to the employer.
Groff v. DeJoy involved a request by a U.S. Postal Service employee not to work on Sundays based on his religious beliefs. The appellate court based its review on an often-quoted portion of the Supreme Court’s 1977 TWA v. Hardison decision to conclude that employers do not have to provide religious accommodations under Title VII if they present “more than a de minimus cost” to the employer. De minimus means very small or trifling, and for almost 50 years, federal courts have used that language to affirm employers’ rejections of a wide range of accommodation requests.
When the Supreme Court accepted review of Groff, this was widely seen as an opportunity to revisit and potentially overrule Hardison. Advocates for employees’ religious practices noted the distinction between the de minimus standard set forth in Hardison and the much higher burden employers must show to deny an accommodation request under the subsequently adopted Americans with Disabilities Act.
While the Supreme Court declined to reverse Hardison, it said that federal courts had misread its meaning. The de minimus language only related to consideration of the accommodation request in the context of the seniority system in place at TWA. The actual standard articulated by Hardison and endorsed by the court in Groff depends on whether “the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
This decision means that when faced with a religious accommodation request, employers are expected to conduct an individual analysis of the economic impact of the request on the business. The question of whether that impact is substantial depends on the nature of the request and the size and resources of the employer. The Supreme Court declined to adopt the ADA accommodation standard or to declare ADA rules or case law as applicable to religious accommodation decisions. The court also said that the burden placed on co-workers from an accommodation is not reason alone to reject that request. Again, the employer must demonstrate actual financial losses as the reason for declining the request.
Employers will now have to revisit the process and criteria used for responding to religious accommodation requests. Much like ADA accommodations, the employer needs to carefully consider and document the actual costs involved in granting the accommodation. This review should include real and not speculative costs for measures such as hiring temporary workers, paying overtime to other employees, lost production due to employee absences, etc. For accommodation requests that do not appear to have direct costs associated such as religious dress, Groff makes denying those requests very difficult.
This decision applies to pending litigation and EEOC charges. It may also result in a “race to HR” by employees seeking accommodations as an excuse from Sunday work. While the first several such requests may not present an undue hardship, the costs associated with multiple accommodations could quickly result in rejection of subsequent requests. The Supreme Court and EEOC may be called upon to determine how employers decide among multiple employee accommodation requests that cumulatively result in substantial costs.
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