By: Robert G. Brody
When considering religious accommodation, employers have enjoyed great latitude with accepting or rejecting requested religious accommodations. This was thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which held an employer need only show it would bear more than a “de minimis” cost/effort to demonstrate that a religious accommodation is an undue hardship under the law.
However, in the recent Supreme Court term, the US Supreme Court upended the “de minimis” cost standard. In Groff v. Dejoy, the justices unanimously ruled that Title VII requires the employer to show they would bear a “substantial increase” in cost/effort to demonstrate that religious accommodation is an undue hardship.
Gross v. Dejoy involved a dispute between the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) and former employee Gerald Groff. Groff, an evangelical Christian who observes Sunday as a day of rest, requested an accommodation to not work on Sundays.
In response, the USPS granted the accommodation to the extent they could redistribute Groff’s Sunday shifts. However, on the days where the USPS could not redistribute Groff’s shifts, Groff was required to work. Groff refused to work on any Sunday and was subject to progressive discipline for failing to work until he ultimately resigned rather than be fired.
Groff sued under Title VII but lost his case in the district court and the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Both courts applied Trans World Airlines to the case and found that USPS established it would bear “more than a de minimis” cost in granting Groff’s accommodation request.
The Plot Twist
In a shockingly-not-shocking ruling, the Supreme Court upended the Trans World Airlines ruling, opting to substitute a “substantial” cost/effort standard for the “de minimis” cost/effort standard.
The “substantial” cost/effort standard is a fact-specific inquiry. The Court provided some factors to analyze, including the accommodation being requested and the accommodation’s real-world impact on the Employer considering the nature, size, and operating costs of an employer. In contrast to the previous standard, some additional costs/efforts may be insufficient to rise to the level of an undue burden. Instead, the burden must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level.
In light of this ruling, employers must revisit their religious accommodation policies. Employers should update their handbooks, communicate the heightened standard to Human Resources, and develop a strategy for analyzing the “cost” or “effort” imposed by future religious accommodation requests.
Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with the latest local, state and federal employment laws. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203.454.0560