Supreme Court Issues Important Title VII Decision

Supreme Court Issues Important Title VII Decision

Today, in an important employment law case, a unanimous Supreme Court “clarified” Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison’s “more than . . . de minimis” language, concluding that it does not suffice to establish an “undue hardship” under Title VII.  Instead, the Court held that to demonstrate an “undue hardship,” an employer must show “a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  While the Court did not overrule Hardison, this clarification of its meaning will likely result in new EEOC Guidance and require employers to immediately review and update any employment policies and practices that rely on the de minimis standard.

In this case, Gerald Groff was hired by USPS as a Rural Carrier Associate (RCA).  The work for a RCA is as needed and the job requires flexibility.  During Groff’s employment, USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages, including on Sundays.  USPS indicated that the success of the Amazon Sunday delivery was critical to USPS.

Groff’s sincere religious beliefs dictate that Sunday is meant for a day of worship and rest.  He therefore informed USPS that he was unable to work on Sundays.  USPS had to find other employees to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts, including the postmaster, whose job does not involve delivering mail.  USPS was able to find other employees to cover his Sunday shifts for some of the time.  Ultimately, Groff was disciplined for failing to work on those days and he resigned from USPS.  Groff then sued alleging violations of Title VII for failing to accommodate his religion.

Title VII makes it unlawful for covered 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.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a)(1) (1964 ed.).  Title VII was amended to clarify that “[t]he term ‘religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e(j) (1970 ed., Supp. II).  “Undue hardship” is not defined in the statute.

In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, a 1977 case, the Supreme Court interpreted what “undue hardship” means under the statute.  The Hardison decision stated that undue hardship was “any effort or cost that is ‘more than …de minimis.’”  Since that time, most lower courts have interpreted “undue hardship” as anything more than de minimis, including the Third Circuit in this case.

In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit and clarified what Hardison meant, without overruling it.  The test the Court adopts today is that an “undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  The Court stressed that this continues to be a fact intensive inquiry, and courts will need to consider “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.” (internal quotations omitted).

While the Court squarely rejected the de minimis standard from Hardison, it explained that the decision could not be “reduced to that one phrase.”  The Court noted that it was “doubtful” that this one line in Hardison was meant to take on such a “large role.”  The Court explained that the governing standard from Hardison, which it adopts, was that an accommodation is not required “when it entails substantial costs or expenditures” (internal quotations omitted).  The de minimis language, the Court explains, was just a point the majority made in reference to Justice Marshall’s dissent, but lower courts have then “latched on” to that standard, despite the conflicting language in the Hardison majority regarding “substantial costs.”

The Court noted that a textualist reading of the statute supports its decision that the correct standard to determine whether an accommodation request is an “undue hardship” is if it presents “substantial costs” in the overall context of the employer’s business.  After all, the Court explains “undue hardship… means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., something that is ‘very small or trifling.’” (citing Black’s Law Dictionary).  The Court also stressed throughout the opinion that the Solicitor General (who represented the employer) did not advocate for the de minimis standard.

One of the other issues in the case was whether courts can consider an accommodation request’s impacts to coworkers.  On this point, the Court notes that “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” those business ramifications.  The Court also pointed out that considerations of coworkers’ dislike for religion or animosity to religion cannot be considered “undue” in the analysis.

Additionally, while the Court changed the de minimis standard to the “substantial cost” standard, it did not disturb Hardison’s holding regarding seniority rights.  In Hardison, the Court held that Title VII does not require a unionized employer to deprive senior employees of their seniority rights under a collective bargaining agreement in order to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.

Finally, from a practical perspective, the Court also noted that it agrees that “a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by [its] clarifying decision.” The Court indicates that it agrees with the EEOC that things like covering “administrative costs involved in reworking schedules, the infrequent or temporary payment of premium wages for a substitute, and voluntary substitutes and swaps when they are not contrary to a bona fide seniority system” would not be an undue hardship.  But the Court does not ratify the EEOC guidance “in toto” given that the agency has not had the “benefit of the clarification” that the Court adopts today.

IMLA, NLC, and NACo (together the Local Government Legal Center), filed an amicus brief in this case authored by Andrew Hessick & Richard Simpson with the University of North Carolina School of Law.  Amici underscored the good faith efforts local governments make to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of their employees and that the de minimis standard in practice has real substance to it.  Amici set forth the burdens on local government if the Court were to adopt a more stringent standard and also argued that stare decisis also compelled the Court to adhere to the current standard given the strong reliance interests that employers have on the Court’s nearly 50-year decision.

Given the Court’s ruling all employers, including public employers, will need to immediately review their employment policies and practices regarding religious accommodations and ensure they are complying with the new standard articulated by the Court today.  This will require immediate training for managers and human resources employees as well as written updates to employee handbooks and policies.  The Supreme Court remanded to the lower court in this case to determine the contours of the new test it articulated.  So local government employers will need to wait for additional guidance from courts and the EEOC to determine what exactly constitutes “substantial costs.”  But this is a context specific inquiry, and thus what a court might require from a larger employer would be different than what it would require from a smaller employee.  And the nature of the accommodation request will also factor into the equation as well.

To read the decision, click here.

To read the amicus brief, click here.