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Splitting the baby on 50 years of precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has clarified that employers must grant a religious accommodation request under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) unless the accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of [their] particular business.” On June 29, SCOTUS issued its unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, upending decades of lower court precedent that authorized employers to reject religious accommodations which imposed “more than a de minimis cost” or expense on company operations.

Though the Groff decision clarifies the burden faced by employers when denying religious accommodation requests, there is good news for employers in the Groff case: SCOTUS expressly declined to adopt the more onerous undue hardship standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to prove that an accommodation would pose a “significant difficulty or expense.” 

What’s this about?

Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who, for religious reasons, believes that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest. In 2012 he became a rural carrier associate with the United States Postal Service (USPS), a position that generally did not involve Sunday work. But when USPS started facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon, Groff and other mail carriers were required to work Sundays on a rotating basis. To avoid this, Groff transferred to a rural USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries, but Sunday Amazon deliveries soon started there as well. Because Groff refused to work Sundays, USPS was forced to redistribute Groff’s Sunday deliveries to other staff. USPS also issued Groff “progressive discipline” for failing to work on Sundays, and Groff eventually resigned. Groff sued under Title VII, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday religious practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.”

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to USPS, and the Third Circuit affirmed based on SCOTUS’ decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).  The Third Circuit—like the majority of federal courts across the country—interpreted Hardison to mean that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost” to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship. The Third Circuit held that USPS met the de minimis cost standard because exempting Groff from Sunday work “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

SCOTUS granted certiorari, and held that the correct reading of Hardison (based on its text) is that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business—not when an employer merely bears “more than a de minimis cost.” In other words, according to SCOTUS, courts and agencies have been reading Hardison incorrectly for years.

The clarified standard means a focus on the facts

What is the practical impact of this clarified “undue hardship” standard? As with most things, it depends on the specifics. SCOTUS said it understood Hardison to mean that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business, which is a fact-specific inquiry that comports both with the text of Hardison and the meaning of “undue hardship” in ordinary speech.

The Court did not provide examples, and declined to elaborate on the definition of “substantial increased costs.” Instead, SCOTUS chose to “leave the context-specific application” of its clarified standard to the lower courts. The Court said lower courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the “commonsense manner” that courts would use in applying any such test, taking into account all relevant factors of 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.

SCOTUS also provided clarification on several “recurring issues” in religious accommodation cases:

  • The Court emphasized that Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommodation’s effect on “the conduct of the employer’s business,” and that impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts affect the conduct of the business. A hardship 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.”
  • The Court also stressed that Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not just to assess the reasonableness of a particular accommodation. Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, an employer would need to consider other possible accommodations (such as voluntary shift swapping) instead of simply concluding that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.

Employer takeaways

  • Though SCOTUS found the lower courts’ reading of Hardison to mean “more than a de minimis cost” too lax (because, according to SCOTUS, it permits employers to deny almost any accommodation request), SCOTUS specifically declined to borrow the phrase “significant difficulty or expense” from the ADA or draw upon ADA case law as the new “undue hardship” standard, saying that doing so goes too far. Employers should not look to the ADA standard or case law for what the new “undue hardship” standard under Title VII means.
  • SCOTUS also declined to opine on whether the EEOC’s construction of Hardison has been correct. But the Court did state it had “no reservations” in saying that a “good deal” of the EEOC’s guidance in this area will likely be unaffected by the decision—noting that much of the EEOC’s guidance has focused on what should be accommodated. It appears that the EEOC’s guidance in this area can still be relied upon. That said, employers should keep an eye out for possible changes to EEOC guidance as a result of this ruling, and consult with counsel for help if uncertain about whether denying a specific religious accommodation request meets the new standard.
  • Employers should pay attention to SCOTUS’ clarification of “recurring issues.” Employers who receive religious accommodation requests should make sure the Groff standard is met (and any denial is not solely based on impact to coworkers). Employers also must consider if alternative accommodations that won’t cause an “undue hardship” are available before denying requests for a specific accommodation. One way to do this: encourage employees to propose alternative accommodations when submitting their requests for an accommodation, while making clear that the company is not obligated to accept any specific accommodation proposed by the employee.