Employment Law Update

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Supreme Court Raises the Bar for Employers to Show “Undue Hardship” in Religious Accommodation Cases

Title VII’s Religious Accommodation Requirements

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on religion and other protected characteristics. Title VII was amended by Congress in 1972 to provide that employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice, unless granting the accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” on the conduct of the employer’s business.

In its 1977 decision, Transworld Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court held that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis” (insignificant) cost in order to accommodate an employee’s religious observance was an “undue hardship.”  Although the Hardison Court also referred to the imposition of “substantial costs” as the applicable standard elsewhere in its decision, over the last four decades the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and many courts have maintained that employers need only show that an employee’s requested accommodation would impose a “de minimis” cost to justify denying the requested accommodation.

The Groff Decision

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Groff v. DeJoy, increasing the burden employers must carry to deny religious accommodations sought by employees under Title VII.

Groff was a rural postal delivery driver.  In 2013, the U.S. Postal Service began making Sunday deliveries to facilitate the delivery of packages for Amazon.  Groff objected to working on Sundays because of his religious beliefs and sought an accommodation from the Post Office allowing him to refrain from working on the sabbath.  For several years, the Post Office made other arrangements and found coverage for Groff’s route by having Groff’s deliveries made by other staff at the facility where he worked or by directing the deliveries to other postal facilities.  All during this time, however, Groff received progressive discipline for failing to work Sundays.  In 2019, Groff resigned and filed suit under Title VII.

In its Groff decision, the Court swept away the “de minimis” standard entirely, finding that that it resulted from a mistaken interpretation of the Court’s earlier ruling in Hardison.  The Court held that an “undue hardship” exists only “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  Because the hardship must be “undue”, the Court reasoned, the hardship must be “more severe than a mere burden.”  It must, instead, rise to “an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable” level.”  Expressing this new standard in terms of costs, the Court held that “an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”  The Court instructed that the lower courts “must apply the test in a manner that takes 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.’”

Impact of the New “Substantial Costs” Standard

It remains to be seen how the EEOC and trial courts will implement this new test.  Groff’s claim was remanded to the lower courts for further proceedings using the new standard.  Guiding the lower court’s reconsideration of the dispute, the Court stated “it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship... [c]onsiderations of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”  In short, Title VII requires an employer to consider a range of available options in determining whether it can reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, or whether granting the accommodation results in an undue burden.   

The Court mentioned the wearing of religious garb and taking time off from work to attend religious obligations as typical of the types of accommodations frequently sought by employees. Notably absent from the Court’s opinion was any mention of vaccination requirements. Although vaccinations have long been the subject of accommodation requests for employers in the health care industry, since the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace vaccination requirements have become widespread. Numerous suits challenging vaccination requirements were pending in the courts at the time of the Court’s Groff decision.  These cases will no doubt expose the difficulty of applying the Court’s “substantial costs” standard in situations where the result of granting the requested accommodation is not as easily measured as the effect of lost work time or the impact of schedule changes on co-workers.  

Next Steps for Employers

The contours of the religious accommodation standard will continue to develop and evolve as disputes make their way through the EEOC and courts. At a minimum, employers considering whether to deny a religious accommodation request should be prepared to document the range of options considered and the relative costs and other burdens involved in permitting the accommodation.  

If you need help with a religious accommodation issue or other employment concern, please contact:

Chuck Bacharch, Melissa McGuire or Tonya Foley