The U.S. Supreme Court has “clarified” the test under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that employers and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have relied upon for more than 46 years, making it easier for employees to obtain religious accommodations.
Under Title VII, employers are required to reasonably accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs or observances conflict with work requirements, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer.
Title VII failed to define “undue hardship,” so for the last 46 years courts have relied on the Court’s decision in a previous case which stated that if an employer is required “to bear more than a de minimis cost” then the requested accommodation is an undue hardship.”
In Groff v. DeJoy, former United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier Gerald Groff claimed he was unlawfully denied his requested religious accommodation to not work Sundays.
According to the USPS, it faced an undue hardship when it tried to find other carriers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts, but, because of a shortage of rural carriers, efforts often failed. Groff requested that the USPS exempt him from Sunday work, but the USPS declined.
A majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with USPS that exempting Groff from working on Sundays would be an undue hardship, since it would burden Goff’s coworkers, disrupt the workplace and workflow, diminish morale, and damage the USPS’s operations.
The New Test
In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court clarified the meaning of undue hardship, changing the test to require an employer to show that a burden is “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” Interestingly, the Court declined to incorporate the undue hardship test used in Americans with Disabilities Act cases, which requires significant difficulty and expense.
Despite the change, the Court stated “[a] good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by the Court’s clarifying decision.” Now, “[c]ourts 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 Changes to Expect
The Court declined to determine what facts would meet this new test, including Groff’s case, and remanded the case back to the lower court to decide. This will result in years of legal battles with courts attempting to apply this new standard.
It is likely that employees will be more successful in making requests for religious accommodations. Trivial or de minimis increases in cost will not constitute an undue hardship and employers will be required to accommodate requests unless there is a “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”