SCOTUS Imposes More Stringent Standard For Employers Managing Requests for Religious Workplace Accommodations

On June 29, 2023, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Groff v. DeJoy, clarifying employers’ obligations to accommodate employees’ religious practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  The Court reinterpreted the meaning of “undue hardship” and held that Title VII requires an employer who denies an employee’s request for a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”  In doing so, the Court rejected a commonly applied, employer-friendly interpretation that an undue hardship exists if an employer can show that the accommodation would result in “more than a de minimis cost.”

The More Lenient “Undue Hardship” Standard Applied by the Lower Courts:

Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  In Groff, a postal carrier who was unwilling to work on Sundays because of his religious practices sued his employer (the United States Postal Service), alleging that it could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath without undue hardship.  Initially, Groff’s position did not include Sunday work.  This later changed, however, causing Gross to transfer to a small postal station that did not make Sunday deliveries.  Once this station began making Sunday deliveries, however, Groff’s Sunday deliveries were redistributed to other workers.  He was disciplined for failing to work on Sundays, and he eventually resigned.  The trial court granted the employer summary judgment, which the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that exempting Gross from Sunday work resulted in more than a de minimis cost, as the exemption had “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

The Court’s More Stringent Interpretation of “Undue Hardship”:

The Supreme Court used this case as an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of “undue hardship.”  The Court focused on the meaning of “undue hardship” in ordinary speech, reasoning that a “hardship” is, at a minimum, something that is hard to bear, and it becomes “undue” when it rises to an excessive or unjustifiable level.  Accordingly, “[w]hen ‘undue hardship’ is understood in this way, it means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., something that is ‘very small or trifling.’”

In announcing this more stringent standard, the Court made it clear that an accommodation’s impact on coworkers are only relevant to the undue hardship analysis when the impact affects the conduct of the employer’s business.  While the Court was somewhat vague about what factors should be used to determine whether an accommodation would affect the conduct of the employer’s business, Justice Sonia Sotomayor (joined by newly appointed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson), penned a concurring opinion in which she emphasized that the impact on coworkers could be considered in an employer’s analysis of undue burden.  In making her point, Justice Sotomayor explained that “for many businesses, labor is more important to the conduct of the business than any other factor.”

The Supreme Court remanded Groff’s case, sending it back to the lower court to apply the new undue hardship standard.  Whereas the Third Circuit had applied the de minimis test in finding for Groff’s employer, the Court reasoned that it may have failed to properly consider possible accommodations, “including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.”

Going Forward:

While the Court noted that much of the EEOC’s guidance in this area will likely be unaffected by the opinion, Groff does change the landscape by subjecting employers to a more demanding standard as to what constitutes an undue hardship.  Determining undue hardship is a highly fact-sensitive exercise.  Employers seeking to manage risk associated with religious accommodation requests, or those facing Title VII religious accommodation actions, should contact counsel for guidance.

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