US Supreme Court clarifies meaning of “undue hardship” in religious accommodation cases under Title VII
In Groff v. DeJoy, a unanimous Supreme Court explained the meaning of “undue hardship” in its 1977 Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison case, clarifying that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” In doing so, the Court rejected a common interpretation of lower courts which read Hardison to mean that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis cost” is an undue hardship.
The Court’s decision represents a potentially significant shift. Employers are encouraged to consider all relevant factors when evaluating religious accommodation requests under Title VII, including the practical impact of a particular accommodation in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.
In DeJoy, Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian who believes that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest, took a mail delivery job with the US Postal Service in 2012.
At first, Groff’s position did not generally involve Sunday work. However, when USPS began delivering packages seven days a week, Groff’s station required him to work on Sundays on a rotating basis. Groff decided to transfer to a rural station that did not have that requirement. When deliveries began at that station, Groff was progressively disciplined for failing to work on Sundays, and he eventually resigned.
Groff brought suit under Title VII, asserting that the USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of its business. The District Court granted summary judgment to the USPS, and the Third Circuit affirmed based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which it construed to mean “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation would be an undue hardship.”
The Supreme Court unanimously rejects the “de minimis cost” standard
The Court began by examining the language of Title VII, which requires employers to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” and the background of its Hardison decision.
The Court explained that the principal issue it addressed in Hardison was whether Title VII “require[s] an employer and a union who have agreed on a seniority system to deprive senior employees of their seniority rights in order to accommodate a junior employee’s religious practices.” The Hardison Court held that Title VII imposed no such requirement, a conclusion “supported by the fact that seniority systems are afforded special treatment under Title VII itself.”
The Court then addressed the above oft-quoted line in its Hardison opinion: “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” According to the Court, lower courts should not have “latched on” to “de minimis” as the governing standard, as the reference to “de minimis” was “undercut by conflicting language and was fleeting in comparison to its discussion of the ‘principal issue’ of seniority.”
The Court noted that the ordinary meaning of “undue hardship” points toward a standard closer to Hardison’s references to “substantial additional costs” or “substantial expenditures.” It concluded, “[w]e understand Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”
The Court explained that courts “must apply the test in a manner that takes 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.” While the Court declined to “ratify in toto a body of EEOC interpretation,” it had “no reservations in saying that a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by our clarifying decision today.” This includes the agency’s guidance explaining why no undue hardship is imposed by temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs. The Court further noted that a coworker’s personal dislike of a religious practice and expression in the workplace or fact of an accommodation is not relevant to a proper undue hardship inquiry.
Finally, the Court underscored that Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations. Thus, when faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, “it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”
The Court declined to address the specific application of the newly clarified undue hardship standard to the facts of the case, noting that the Third Circuit assumed that Hardison prescribed a “more than a de minimis cost” test, which may have led it to dismiss a number of possible accommodations, including “those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.” Accordingly, it remanded the case to the lower courts for further consideration.
Employers are encouraged to review their policies and practices for reviewing requests for religious accommodations under Title VII and ensure those responsible reviewing requests are aware of the new “substantial increased cost” standard. Employers should also watch for updated EEOC guidance regarding what constitutes an “undue hardship” in religious accommodation cases and monitor lower court decisions as they apply the heightened standard.
If you have questions about the Supreme Court’s decision or how it might impact your policies and practices, please reach out to the authors or your DLA Piper attorney.
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