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Case Lesson: SCOTUS, Title VII, & Sundays Off

30 Jun, 2023 Frank Ferreri

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In a unanimous ruling, Top Court does away with "more than de minimis" standard for determining when a religious accommodation is "reasonable."

Case: Groff v. DeJoy, 2023 WL 4239256 (U.S. 06/29/23)

What Happened: A U.S. Postal Service employee was an Evangelical Christian who believed for religious reasons that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest, not "secular labor" and transporting "worldly goods."

When the employee took the position, Sunday work generally was not a requirement, but things changed when the USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries.

Because the employee was unwilling to work on Sundays, the USPS made other arrangements and doled out "progressive discipline" to the employee for failing to work on Sundays. Eventually, the employee resigned and sued under Title VII.

The employee's argument was that the USPS failed to provide him with a religious accommodation.

In District Court, the employee came up short, and the Circuit Court agreed because it determined that precedent in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) dictated that "requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.” 

In the Circuit Court's view, exempting the employee from Sunday work was an imposition on coworkers, "disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

The employee appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rule of Law: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment, because of such individual's ... religion.”

The Title VII regulations require employers “to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees” so long as doing so does not work an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business.”

What SCOTUS Said: "[S]howing 'more than a de minimis cost,' as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish 'undue hardship' under Title VII." Instead, "'undue hardship' is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer's business."

To break it down, the court explained:

--> In common parlance, a “hardship” is, at a minimum, “something hard to bear.” Dictionaries define it as:
(1) Something that causes or entails suffering or privation.
(2) Extreme privation; adversity; suffering.
(3) Privation, suffering, adversity.
--> Under any definition, a hardship is more severe than a mere burden.
--> Adding the modifier "undue" means that the requisite burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an "excessive" or "unjustifiable" level.

So, what's the solution to what an "undue hardship" is? The Court did not adopt a definition, but set up a way for courts to focus on what the employer's circumstances are and how an employee's proposed accommodation actually affects the employer.

"We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business," the Court wrote. "What is most important is that 'undue hardship' in Title VII means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer's business in the common-sense manner that it would use in applying any such test."

 The Court also wanted to make some clarifications regarding Title VII and religious accommodations:

(1) An accommodation's effect on co-workers may have ramifications for the conduct of the employer's business, but a court cannot stop its analysis without examining whether that step is shown in a particular case. "An employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is 'undue,' and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered 'undue.'"
(2) Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee's practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations. "Faced with an accommodation request ... , it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship," the Court explained. "Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary."

The Court sent the case back to the Circuit Court for it to determine whether accommodating the employee would amount to an undue hardship under Title VII.

The Takeaway: An employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is “undue,” and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered “undue.”

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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