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New Supreme Court Ruling Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard, Makes It Harder to Prove

Female colleagues, one wearing a hijab, working at computer desk

This blog examines the recent United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) case of Groff v. Dejoy, 143 S. Ct. 2279 (2023). Groff considered a religious accommodation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which generally requires employers to give employees religious accommodations that impose no undue hardship on the employer. Groff addressed what “undue hardship” means.

Prior to the Groff decision, lower courts allowed employers to deny employee religious accommodation requests that imposed more than a “de minimis cost” on the employer. These lower court rulings equated “de minimis cost” with “undue hardship.” The Groff Court rejected this “more than de minimis cost” standard and held that an undue hardship means exactly that — a hardship that is more than a mere burden on the employer. An undue hardship legal analysis is fact specific and accounts for all relevant factors including the accommodation requested and their practical impact in light of the employer’s industry, size, and operating costs.

Background of Title VII

Title VII is a federal law that protects job applicants and employees in certain protected classes from employer discrimination with regard to any term, condition, or privilege of employment.

Title VII is codified at 42 U.S.C. §2000, et. seq., and its provisions are enforced through Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations published in the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.).

After some tinkering in 1968, the EEOC adopted regulations requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees when doing so would not create an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. See 29 C.F.R. §1605.2.

Congress amended Title VII in 1972 to track the EEOC’s regulatory language and 42 U.S.C. §2000e(j) currently notes:

[t]he term ‘religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.

A Detailed Analysis

Gerald Groff was an Evangelical Christian employed by the United States Postal Service (USPS). The USPS began Sunday deliveries five years into Groff’s employment with the USPS. Groff refused to work Sundays due to his religion, so the USPS made other arrangements, including assigning Sunday deliveries to other staff (including to the postmaster who ordinarily made no deliveries) and redistributing work to other carriers assigned to the regional hub.

Meanwhile, the USPS progressively disciplined Groff for his refusal to work Sundays until he resigned. Groff sued the USPS in federal court asserting a Title VII claim, arguing that the USPS could have accommodated without undue hardship his religious practice of avoiding work on Sunday. The District Court dismissed Groff’s case on summary judgment, and Groff appealed to the Third Circuit, which affirmed the dismissal based on the Supreme Court’s prior ruling in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).

The question before the Supreme Court in Groff is one that has piqued the interest of employment lawyers around the country: What does “undue hardship” really mean? The Groff Court clarified the undue hardship legal standard by addressing various lower court tests developed over the last 50 years that evaluated undue hardship in terms of whether an accommodation imposed “more than de minimis costs” or “substantial costs or expenditures” to the employer.

Justice Alito delivered the unanimous Groff opinion. The Supreme Court began by vacating the Third Circuit’s Hardison-based decision, which held that Groff’s refusal to work Sundays required the USPS to “bear more than a de minimis cost” by imposing on Groff’s coworkers, disrupting the workplace and workflow at USPS, and diminishing employee morale.

The Third Circuit had concluded that “requiring an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship,” which was erroneous. The Supreme Court determined that a clarification of the “undue hardship” standard for religious accommodation in employment was needed.

In clarifying the “undue hardship” standard, the Supreme Court opined that:

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 or accommodations.

When faced with an accommodation request, employers must consider all possible accommodations and their effect on the employer’s business, including practical impacts in light of the employer’s nature, size, and operating cost.

The Supreme Court further clarified that certain employer hardships cannot be considered “undue,” including those rooted in employee animosity to a particular religion (or to religion in general), or to the very notion of accommodation of religious practices. Title VII requires an employer denying a religious accommodation request to show that granting the accommodation would substantially increase costs in relation to the conduct of its business.

Takeaways

Here are four takeaways local governments should consider in light of Groff v. DeJoy.

What is the process for granting or denying religious accommodation?

If an employee requests religious accommodation, the employer must engage in an interactive process to determine other possible options if the requested accommodation would result in an undue hardship. If the employer denies the requested religious accommodation, it has the burden of showing undue hardship. Religious beliefs must be sincerely held to require employer accommodation.

What is the “undue hardship” standard going forward?

An undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business (nature of business, size, and operating costs). A commonsense, ordinary meaning is applied to determine what constitutes an undue hardship — something that is hard to bear, excessive, or unjustifiable, and not small or trifling.

Are there any public exceptions?

Are public employers treated differently under Title VII when faced with religious accommodation requests in light of the requirement to serve the public? Under Groff, there is no public versus private employer exception, although Title VII only applies to employers with 15 or more employees

What is unlikely to be an undue hardship?

Courts are unlikely to find an undue hardship exists under Groff and prior EEOC guidance if the accommodation imposes or involves temporary payment of premium wages for a substitute, voluntary substitutes and shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs involved in reworking schedules.



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About Kendra Rosenberg

Kendra Rosenberg is a partner at Kenyon Disend. She prides herself in partnering with a variety of city leadership to identify risk and liability issues, propose solutions, and support the goals of her municipal clients.

Kendra is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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