U.S. Supreme Court Raises Bar for Denying Employee Religious Accommodations
In Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court set aside nearly five decades of precedent holding that an employer could deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation under Title VII if the accommodation would result in more than a de minimis burden for the employer. Instead, employers must now show that a requested religious accommodation would impose a burden that is “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice unless the employer is unable to do so without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. The phrase “undue hardship” has been interpreted by courts for almost five decades to mean any effort or cost that is more than de minimis. This definition comes from a line in the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977), in which the Court held that “[t]o require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Id.
Gerald Groff’s Claims
As described in the Court’s opinion, Plaintiff Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who, for religious reasons, believes that Sunday should be reserved for worship and rest. Groff began working a mail delivery job with the United States Postal Service in 2012. At that time Groff’s position generally did not require him to work on Sundays. However, that requirement changed after USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Groff refused to work on Sundays, so USPS redistributed his Sunday deliveries to his colleagues and began issuing Gross progressive discipline for failing to work. Ultimately, Groff chose to resign as he expected to be terminated. A few weeks later Groff sued USPS for failure to accommodate his Sunday Sabbath practice under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Groff argued USPS could have accommodated his religious practice without undue hardship. USPS argued that Groff’s request to be excused from Sunday work would create more than a de minimis burden because other employees were forced to work in his place, resulting in at least one grievance from another employee. The district court agreed with USPS, entering summary judgment against Groff. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that it was required to apply the de minimis standard from the Supreme Court’s Hardison ruling.
The Court’s Opinion
In an unusual turn of events, both parties to the case – Groff and the Postmaster General, represented by the U.S. Solicitor General – agreed that the Third Circuit’s reading of Hardison was mistaken and that the de minimis standard was not the correct interpretation of Title VII.
In a 9-0 decision, the Court vacated the Third Circuit’s judgment in favor of the USPS, holding that the Court of Appeals erred in applying the de minimis standard to Groff’s claims. In an opinion delivered by Justice Alito, the Court expressed doubt that the single phrase in Hardison referencing the de minimis standard was meant to define “undue hardship,” noting that the Hardison decision stated three separate times that an accommodation is not required when it entails “substantial” “costs” or “expenditures.” The Court further observed that the concept of “hardship” inherently denotes something more than a de minimis burden, and that use of the word “undue” implies that employers must bear some amount of hardship from accommodating employees’ religious beliefs. The Court held that courts applying the undue hardship standard under Title VII must take into account “all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.’”
Based on the Court’s clarification of the meaning of undue hardship, the Court remanded the case to the lower courts to determine whether USPS could have reasonably accommodated Groff’s Sunday Sabbath under this heightened standard.
Implications for Employers
Overturning nearly 50 years of established case law, this decision substantially raises the bar for employers to justify denial of an employee’s request for religious accommodation based upon undue hardship. Groff will inevitably lead to more legal grappling over what constitutes a “substantial” burden. Employers keen to avoid litigation may in turn find themselves granting religious accommodation requests that previously would have been easily dismissed under the de minimis standard. These issues will have particular significance as employers struggle to balance competing interests related to hot-button social issues, such as vaccinations, reproductive health services, and respect for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
If you have questions regarding this Supreme Court decision, please reach out to any Franczek attorney.