Supreme Court Clarifies the "Undue Hardship" Test for Religious Accommodations: The Standard is Higher

by Lana L. Rupprecht, Esq. - AVP Product Compliance

July 03, 2023

 

On June 29, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an important decision impacting employers considering religious accommodations for their employees.

In the decision, Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court clarified the meaning of "undue hardship" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and a 1977 Supreme Court decision, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. With the Groff decision, employers may now find it more difficult to deny an employee's request for a religious accommodation in the workplace on the basis that it is an "undue hardship" to the business.

What is the prior "undue hardship" standard for religious accommodations?

Under Title VII, employers may not discriminate against employees based upon their religious beliefs and may be required to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees so long as doing so is not "an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."

"Undue hardship" is defined differently under Title VII than it is under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, it is defined as a "significant difficulty or expense." Under the Hardison decision referenced above, the EEOC and courts interpreted "undue hardship" under Title VII as more than a de minimis cost (more than a minimal burden) to an employer's business. This is a much lower standard than the ADA.

The EEOC, in guidance, provided the following examples of "undue hardship" in the religious accommodation context: violating a seniority system, causing a lack of necessary staffing, jeopardizing security or health, or costing the employer more than a minimal amount.

What is the new Supreme Court case about? The Facts

The United States Postal Service (USPS) employed Gerald Groff as a Rural Carrier Associate (RCA) beginning in 2012. According to USPS, RCAs were required to be flexible relief carriers who were willing to work weekends and holidays.

Groff believed that due to his religious beliefs, Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest and not work. When Groff started working for the USPS, mail was not delivered on Sundays, so he was not required to work. Later, during Groff's employment, USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to begin Sunday deliveries which eventually impacted Groff's schedule so that he had to work on Sundays on a rotating basis.

Groff did not report to work and missed at least 24 days of scheduled Sunday work in 2017. USPS asserted that Groff's failure to report to work upset other carriers. According to USPS, the carriers filed complaints and discussed a boycott; one carrier transferred to work at another location and one resigned. USPS claimed that Groff's failure to work on his scheduled Sundays complicated the scheduling and planning processes and created more difficulties in timely delivering the packages. Also, exempting Groff from the scheduling rotation on Sundays required other carriers to work more Sundays than they otherwise would have had to.

Groff received progressive discipline for his missed Sunday shifts. Other than this, however, his performance was good, and he was considered a good and efficient employee. Groff resigned in January of 2019 claiming he expected that his employment would be terminated.

Why did the Court clarify the definition of "undue hardship"? The decision in Groff v. DeJoy

Groff brought religious discrimination claims under Title VII. He asserted that USPS should have accommodated his request to be exempt from working on Sundays. USPS disagreed and provided several examples of "undue hardship" to USPS such as: skipping every Sunday violated a Collective Bargaining Agreement; and scheduling issues since there were only two RCAS at Groff's work location.

Both the federal district court in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit appellate court agreed with USPS on its "undue hardship" argument. In doing so, both courts relied upon the de minimis standard from Hardison. The Third Circuit stated, "[e]xempting 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 Supreme Court, however, sent the case back to the lower court holding that "more than a de minimis cost" is not enough to show "undue hardship" as intended under Title VII. The Court conducted an extensive analysis of Hardison concluding that the de minimis phrase was improperly "latched on" as the governing standard and that Hardison cannot be reduced to that one phrase, especially when the Court repeatedly referred to "substantial burdens." The Court also analyzed the plain definitions of the terms "undue" and "hardship" concluding that "undue hardship" "means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., 'very small or trifling.'"

The Court concluded that the proper definition of "undue hardship" under Title VII is whether a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer's business and is a fact specific inquiry.

What about the current EEOC guidance on religious accommodation?

We anticipate that the EEOC will update its guidance in light of this decision.

The Supreme Court did recognize that much of the EEOC's guidance in this area may not be impacted stating: "After all, as a public advocate for employee rights, much of the EEOC's guidance has focused on what should be accommodated. Accordingly, today's clarification may promote little, if any, change in the agency's guidance explaining why no undue hardship is imposed by temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs."

Stay tuned as we are monitoring this and will provide updates on the EEOC's response!

What should you do?

Here are some important takeaways for employers as result of this recent and important decision:

  • The interactive process itself under Title VII should be the same or similar to your ADA process. When an employee requests an accommodation for religious reasons, talk to the employee to determine an effective solution and document that you did so. Often, religious accommodation requests are not as difficult as the one in this decision and in many situations, can be accommodated with little disruption.
  • Consider alternative but equally effective accommodations and document those as well. As noted by the Supreme Court, 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.
  • If you believe you cannot provide a religious accommodation due to "undue hardship," be prepared to show facts to support your decision and how it will substantially impact your business. Document these facts carefully!
  • Check your internal policies and related forms on religious accommodation and update them to mirror the clarified legal standard as needed.
  • Update and provide training to your Human Resources team and company leaders on how to apply the new standard to religious accommodation requests.
  • And of course, always consult with Human Resources or your employment law attorney through this process and certainly before making any sort of disciplinary decision that may be impacted by an employee's religious accommodation requests.

Reliance Matrix can help!

Through its insurance and administrative services entities, Reliance Matrix offers integrated leave management services including accommodation solutions including disability, religious and pregnancy accommodations. Product features and availability may vary by state. For more information, please contact your Reliance Matrix account manager.

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