On Thursday (June 29, 2023) the Supreme Court ruled in favor of postal worker, Gerald Groff, who wanted to take Sundays off for church and rest but was told he had to work. In its ruling the Court clarified previous precedent for religious accommodations, likely making it harder for an employer to refuse to accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee under Title VII of the civil rights law. This ruling is a significant departure from the Court’s previous 1977 ruling Trans World Airlines v. Hardison where the Court stated that requiring an employer to “bear more than a de minimis cost” to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs is an undue hardship.
Undue Hardship and the Conduct of Business.
In the case, Groff v. DeJoy, Post Master General, the Supreme Court reviewed the case of a former mail carrier, an evangelical Christian, who said the United States Postal Service violated federal law by failing to reasonably accommodate his inability to work on Sundays. A lower court had ruled against the worker, Gerald Groff, holding that his request would cause an undue hardship on the Postal Service and lead to low morale at the workplace when other employees had to pick up his shifts. While the Supreme Court unanimously stated that a lower court was too quick to deny the employee’s request for accommodation and should take another look at the impact the request would have on the Postal Service as a whole, the Justices differed in their reasoning for remanding.
Justice Samuel Alito, in writing the court’s opinion, focused on the cost to the employer stating
“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…
Courts must apply the test to take into account 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…
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 commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test…
Impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business. A court must analyze whether that further logical step is shown. Further, 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.” Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation cannot supply a defense…
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 like Groff’s, an employer must do more that conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options would also be necessary.”
While Justice Sotomayor concurred in the decision, her concurrence highlighted a distinction in the court’s opinion, noting that the court had ruled that Title VII requires that an employer, in rejecting a requested accommodation, must show that the accommodation would impose “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Her concurrence focused on how a proposed accommodation could impose an undue hardship on a business’ employees, stating:
“Because the “conduct of [a] business” plainly includes the management and performance of the business’s employees, undue hardship on the conduct of a business may include undue hardship on the business’s employees…
Indeed, for many businesses, labor is more important to the conduct of the business than any other factor…
To be sure, some effects on co-workers will not constitute “undue hardship” under Title VII. For example, animus toward a protected group is not a cognizable “hardship” under any antidiscrimination statute… In addition, some hardships, such as the labor costs of coordinating voluntary shift swaps, are not “undue” because they are too insubstantial… Nevertheless, if there is an undue hardship on ‘the conduct of the employer’s business’… then such hard- ship is sufficient, even if it consists of hardship on employees.”
The Case: Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General
The facts of the case boil down to this: Petitioner Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian who believes for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest. In 2012, Groff took a mail delivery job with the United States Postal Service. Groff’s position generally did not involve Sunday work, but that changed after USPS agreed to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. To avoid the requirement to work Sundays on a rotating basis, Groff transferred to a rural USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries. After Amazon deliveries began at that station as well, Groff failed to report for assigned Sunday shifts. Postal Service officials sought to accommodate Groff by attempting to facilitate shift swaps but were not always successful. His absences caused tension among other carriers who had to cover his shifts, the Postal Service said. Groff received several disciplinary letters and he eventually resigned. Groff sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.”
A federal district court ruled in favor of the Postal Service, and a divided panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the ruling.
The appeals court found that exempting Groff from working on Sundays “caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.
The Impact of Groff and Undue Burden and Religious Accommodation on Your Business
The immediate impact of the case is unclear. With its concurring opinions and footnoted commentary, no clear rule has been formed for employers to follow. In fact, the Court even stated that USPS could still prevail in the case. Further complicating matters is that this case was heavy on facts, meaning the ruling could be narrowly applied rather than creating broad implications. It is simply too early to tell. For now, the conservative approach is for employers to focus on the holding that to establish the undue hardship defense, an employer “must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased cost in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
The case is clear on one point, both the majority opinion and the concurring option agree: an employer cannot take into account employee animosity to a particular religion or a certain religious practice. The concurrence goes further, warning against using the burden of coordinating shift swaps as a basis for undue hardship. So, while that is not a direct holding, the conservative approach would be to take that warning to heart. For the rest, we wait and watch as the case progresses again through the lower court system.
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