Thursday, June 2, 2022

Third Circuit on religious accommodations and undue hardship analysis

A fascinating precedential split opinion from the Third Circuit in Groff v. DeJoy.  


A mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service ("USPS") was also a Sunday Sabbath observer who believed that Sunday was a day for worship and rest. The USPS, however, believes that Sunday is a day for delivering packages under a contract with Amazon. So, we have a conflict between the employee's religious beliefs and the employer's work requirements. It's time to bring in the Title VII reasonable accommodations analysis! 

The USPS allowed the employee to swap shifts with his coworkers. There was just one problem: the coworkers wouldn't swap. The employee was unable to find someone to swap on 24 Sundays over a 60-week period. The employee faced discipline for missing shifts, and ultimately resigned citing the lack of "accommodating employment atmosphere" that would "honor [his] personal religious beliefs."

Two fascinating questions with close calls:

1. Did the employer offer a reasonable accommodation? 

Here, the majority concluded that the employer did not provide a reasonable accommodation. In line with prior Third Circuit precedent, the Court held that the accommodation must eliminate the conflict between the employee's religious beliefs and the job requirement. Here, the swapping simply did not resolve the conflict because the employee could not find anyone to swap. Other circuits, however, have concluded that the word "reasonable" means that the accommodation need not totally eliminate the conflict. 

2. Did the employer establish an undue hardship defense?

Okay, the swapping option was not a reasonable accommodation, but that does not mean the employer violated Title VII. The employer can still prevail by showing that it would incur an "undue hardship," which in the context of religious accommodation merely means more than a "de minimis" cost. The Court held:

Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his cowork
Not official use.

ers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale at both [locations where he worked].

In dissent, Judge Hardiman disagreed noting that:

[N]either our Court nor the Supreme Court has held that impact on coworkers alone—without showing business harm—establishes undue hardship.

Judge Hardiman essentially tees this up as a novel issue of whether damage to employee morale is sufficient to establish undue hardship.  

SCOTUS Review?

Just me speculating here - but we have a precedential circuit court decision that addresses two issues. The first issue - whether a reasonable accommodation must totally eliminate the conflict between the religious belief and the job requirement - is a circuit split. The second issue - whether damage to employee morale for coworkers having to pick up shifts on Sundays is an undue hardship - is (at least as portrayed by Judge Hardiman) a novel issue, which I suspect the current SCOTUS would like to take a look at. This could be an interesting case for SCOTUS review...

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