SCOTUS Increases Burden on Employers to Deny Religious Accommodations

Garrett P. Buttrey

On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court (“Court”) issued a unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, finding that the employer-friendly de minimis standard for determining whether an employer would suffer an undue hardship by granting a religious accommodation to an employee is incompatible with the text of Title VII, and that federal law requires employers to instead show that such an accommodation would impose “substantial additional costs” on the employer.

After the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) began delivering packages for Amazon on Sundays in 2013, Gerald Groff, a former mail carrier with the USPS, requested a religious accommodation, claiming that according to his Evangelical Christian faith, Sundays were to be devoted to worship and rest, and that delivering packages on Sundays would violate his religious convictions. The USPS, however, continued to schedule him for Sunday shifts and, when he continued to refuse to work on Sundays, the USPS redistributed those shifts to other USPS staff and issued Groff progressive discipline for his refusals to work. Eventually, Groff resigned his position and sued the USPS, claiming that it could have accommodated his religious practice without an undue hardship on the conduct of its business.

District and Circuit Courts throughout the country—including the Third Circuit where Groff’s case was filed—have long held that an employer may deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation if such an accommodation would require the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost.” Accordingly, the trial court found, and the Third Circuit agreed, that exempting Groff from Sunday shifts “imposed on his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale,” which was enough to constitute a de minimis burden on the USPS.

On appeal, the Court found that lower courts’ historic reliance on the de minimis standard has been misplaced, and determined that Title VII imposes a burden on employers to show that granting the requested accommodation would impose “substantial additional costs” or “substantial expenditures” in relation to the context of the employer’s business. The Court also held that, in deciding whether such an undue hardship exists, lower courts must consider “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.’” The impact on co-workers is only relevant to this analysis to the extent it affects the conduct of the employer’s business, and employers may no longer use “employee animosity toward a particular religion, religion in general, or the notion of accommodating a religious practice” as a defense of its denial of a religious accommodation.

Under this standard, the Court found that it was not sufficient for the USPS to simply determine that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue burden; instead, the USPS was required to consider all options available to accommodate Groff’s religious practice and only permitted to deny the requested accommodation if granting it would impose substantial additional costs or expenditures on the USPS.

The practical implications of this decision will show themselves more clearly as trial courts decide religious accommodation cases in the coming months and years, but employers would be wise to start reconsidering their approaches to requests for religious accommodations now. If and when an employee requests a religious accommodation, employers should make every effort to consider not only whether the requested accommodation is itself reasonable, but also any other options available that would allow it to actually accommodate the employee in light of the employer’s resources and the impact on the conduct of the particular business.

Blank Rome will continue to monitor how this case and others like it are treated in the lower courts and update this blog with any developments that may impact employers’ day-to-day decisions about religious accommodations.

For more information, please contact Garrett Buttrey or another member of Blank Rome’s Labor & Employment practice group.

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