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In this edition of Ask General Counsel, General Counsel P.C. attorneys discuss the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which provides employers guidance on their obligation to offer religious accommodations.
Gerald Groff delivered mail for the U.S. Postal Service (“USPS”). Groff holds religious beliefs that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest. When he began as a mail carrier for USPS in 2012, the service did not deliver mail on Sundays. By 2016 USPS began routinely delivering parcels on Sundays, and Groff requested religious accommodations from USPS.
Initially, Groff was permitted to take off Sundays so long as he provided coverage for additional shifts during the week. However, the small rural Post Office was often overwhelmed and understaffed during peak seasons. Groff was asked to work Sundays during these busy periods, but he refused. USPS would try to find coverage for Groff’s shift, but in this rural area it proved difficult, and USPS was often required to redistribute Groff’s deliveries among other mail carriers.
Each time Groff refused to work on a Sunday he received progressive discipline. Groff requested a lateral transfer to a position that did not require Sunday work, although USPS had no lateral positions that would be off on Sundays. In 2019, Groff resigned, claiming that he expected imminent termination.
Formulating a New Standard for Undue Hardship Under Title VII
Title VII has been interpreted to require employers to “make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees” whenever that would not create an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1. In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court included language suggesting the undue hardship standard is met when the employer bears “more than a de minimis cost” in providing accommodation. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977).
In consideration of the “de minimis” language in Hardison, the District Court granted summary judgment for USPS. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that exempting Groff from Sunday work “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” In dissent, Judge Hardiman argued that the Supreme Court has never held “that impact on coworkers alone — without showing business harm — establishes undue hardship.” Groff v. DeJoy, 35 F. 4th 161, 176 (3rd Cir. 2022) (Hardiman, J., dissenting). Groff appealed to the Supreme Court.
Arguing before the Supreme Court, both parties agreed that reducing the entire opinion in Hardison to require only a showing of “de minimis” cost is improper. However, Groff and USPS proposed differing solutions, leaving the Supreme Court to define the contours of what constitutes an improper burden.
The court began by reevaluating Hardison, noting that the opinion routinely refers to “substantial burdens” and that this language better reflects the meaning of undue hardship. Therefore, showing more than a de minimis cost does not suffice to establish “undue hardship” under Title VII.
In formulating the updated test for denying accommodations due to undue hardship, the Supreme Court held that an employer is required to show a substantial burden. This fact-specific inquiry considers the overall context of an employer’s business, including the accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer. One way an employer could demonstrate the necessary burden is by showing that granting the accommodation would substantially increase costs. Ultimately, the Supreme Court remanded the case to lower courts for consideration under the refined test for undue hardship.
Key Takeaways for Employers
– Title VII offers protections for employees to ensure religious persons’ full participation in the workforce.
– Employers are required to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.
– If an employee requests not to work on the Sabbath for religious reasons, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.
– In evaluating whether an accommodation creates an undue burden the court will look at accommodations at issue and their practical impact, in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer.
– An employer may need to show that the accommodation would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of the business.
– If an employee requests accommodations for religious reasons under Title VII, it may be prudent to speak with an employment attorney to evaluate whether the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for your business.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law attorneys at General Counsel, P.C. today at 703-556-0411, firstname.lastname@example.org, or use this Contact Us Form. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with businesses, non-profits, and individuals throughout the DC Metropolitan area and across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, and Loudoun County.