The United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, clarifying its earlier opinion in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) that described an employer’s obligation to an employee seeking an accommodation based upon their religious beliefs. The Plaintiff in the case, Gerald Groff, worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a rural carrier associate, covering for full-time workers who were absent. Groff was a long-time Evangelical Christian who, for religious reasons, believes that Sundays should be devoted exclusively to worship and rest, not secular labor, and could therefore not work on Sundays.
At the time he was hired, the Postal Service did not deliver on Sundays, so Groff’s religious beliefs posed no impediment to him performing his job. As time wore on, however, the Postal Service entered into delivery agreements with Amazon to facilitate the delivery of packages on Sundays. Groff began to be added to the regular Sunday schedule as a result.
Though Groff and the Postal Service took a variety of steps to address Groff’s religious convictions, he still was assigned Sundays from time to time when no one else was available to work the shift. Groff routinely would fail to appear for those shifts because of his religious objections, and was repeatedly disciplined as a result.
Finally, in January 2019 Groff resigned, claiming that he expected to be terminated shortly thereafter because of his continued refusal to work on Sundays. He then sued under Title VII, asserting that the Postal Service had failed to accommodate his religious practices as required by law.
The Postal Service defended by arguing that granting a reasonable accommodation of never having to work on Sunday would impose more than a de minimis burden on the employer, based upon a commonly held reading of the Supreme Court’s Hardison decision. Because refusing to work on Sunday had “imposed on his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and work flow, and diminished employee morale,” the Postal Service argued, the accommodation sought was not required by Title VII. The case was dismissed by the trial court on that basis, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.
On review, the Supreme Court held that the USPS unlawfully had denied Groff a religious accommodation that aligned with his religious day of observance. Under the plain text of Title VII, the Court held, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to employees, when their religious observations conflict with their job, unless the accommodation imposes an undue hardship. Based on an erroneous reading of Hardison, the Court noted, many lower courts had incorrectly found that to show an undue hardship, an employer only needed to show any effort or cost that is simply “more than… de minimus.” Rejecting that position, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that under Title VII, “undue hardship” means 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.” (emphasis added). This will require employers to engage in a fact specific inquiry whenever handling requests for a religious accommodation.
This clarified undue hardship standard under Title VII will require employers to focus on the costs associated with any religious accommodation, including the employer’s size and operating costs, before making a final decision on any adverse action or termination. While a similar standard exists under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Groff Court declined to extend ADA Accommodation rulings to religious accommodation requests wholesale, preferring to have the lower courts develop an independent body of law focused on the particular language contained within Title VII.
This “clarifying” ruling marks a significant change in employer obligations to accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace. Employers who are confronted with such requests should discuss their particular situation with a Labor and Employment attorney prior to making decisions on any accommodation requests to minimize their litigation risks.