The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will impact how employers across the country respond to their employees’ requests for religious accommodation. Depending on how the Court rules, it may become much more difficult for companies to comply with or deny religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The case, Groff v. DeJoy, involves a former U.S. Postal Service worker who claimed that he was disciplined and forced to resign rather than work his mail route on Sundays. USPS made efforts to accommodate Groff by allowing him to swap shifts with other employees. But when it could not find other employees to cover his shifts, USPS scheduled Groff to work on Sunday at least twenty-four times during a roughly 14-month period. Groff refused to work any of those scheduled Sundays and USPS disciplined him on multiple occasions for his refusal. Eventually Groff resigned when it became clear that he faced termination.
Issues on Appeal
In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Groff argued that USPS treated him differently than other employees based on his religion, but more importantly, that USPS failed to accommodate his sincerely held religious beliefs by scheduling him to work Sundays. The district court granted summary judgment to the Postal Service on both claims.
The district court highlighted a circuit split regarding the level of accommodation required for an employer to meet its duties under Title VII. Groff argued that a religious accommodation must “fully eliminate” the conflict between an employee’s religious beliefs and the employer’s work requirements, a position espoused by the Second, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits. USPS argued that, as long as an accommodation that is reasonable is offered, then its obligations have been met, a position followed by the Fourth and Eighth Circuits. As a matter of first impression, the district judge decided to follow the Fourth and Eighth Circuits, and ruled that USPS met its obligations by offering shift-swapping to Groff.
Separately, the district court found that USPS demonstrated that accommodating Groff would cause an undue hardship because it imposed more than de minimis cost to the Service. The de minimis test was first set forth by the Supreme Court in Trans World Airlines, Inc. (TWA) v. Hardison in 1977, and has stood since then. The court concluded that the burden placed on Groff’s coworkers to cover his shifts, disruption of “the workplace and workflow,” and diminished morale were sufficient to show a greater than de minimis cost to the Postal Service.
The Third Circuit heard Groff’s appeal, and rejected the district court’s reasoning on the level of accommodation required, stating that USPS’s attempts at shift-swapping to cover for Groff on Sundays did not constitute an “accommodation” because they were not successful for those 24 Sundays. However, the circuit ultimately affirmed the lower court because it said that USPS had demonstrated an undue burden under the Hardison test.
In briefs filed to the Supreme Court, the parties focused on two primary questions for the high court to decide. First, whether a religious accommodation under Title VII must “fully eliminate” the conflict between an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs and the employers work rules. Second, whether the de minimis test under Hardison should be overruled.
For employers, a Supreme Court decision that answers either question in the affirmative will bring a greater burden of compliance in response to Title VII requests for religious accommodations by employees. Such a shift would bring the religious accommodations process further in line with the more labor-intensive ADA accommodations process with which Human Resources departments are keenly familiar.
We will monitor this case and update our blog when the Court issues its opinion.