Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 creates a statutory obligation for covered employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers’ religious observances, short of incurring an undue hardship. At a minimum, aggrieved employees generally must establish three elements in a failure-to-accommodate lawsuit:
- the plaintiff-employee had a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement;
- the plaintiff informed the defendant-employer of that belief; and
- the defendant disciplined or discharged the plaintiff for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.
In an Eleventh Circuit decision I read a while ago (but just getting around to blogging about now), the plaintiff was under investigation for a work-related issue. During the investigation, he asked his supervisor for a day off to celebrate Eid al-Fitr (“Eid”) with his family and later confirmed that Eid was a holy day like Christmas. The supervisor checked with Employee Relations about the request because staffing issues apparently conflicted with the request. The defendant denied that accommodation and a related request to miss work on the final Friday of July, which fell on Ramadan. The plaintiff came to work on both days without further comment.
He later brought a failure-to-accommodate claim under Title VII.
Perhaps knowing that the traditional test requires some adverse employment action, the plaintiff argued that he could satisfy the third element by showing that he faced a Hobson’s choice of compromising his faith and risking discipline or discharge. But both the lower and appellate courts refused to adjust the legal requirements for his claim. To establish an adverse employment action, an employee must show a serious and material change in employment terms, conditions, or privileges. This is not subjective. Instead, a reasonable person in the same circumstances must view the employment action that way.
Based on the evidence, the plaintiff willingly came into work and received no discipline. Further, the plaintiff never claimed that the defendant threatened him with discipline or that his termination was associated with his requests to take time off for Ramadan and Eid. Consequently, the plaintiff’s failure-to-accommodate claim failed.
The facts and circumstances of this case are uncommon. Employers should focus instead on the recently recalibrated process for evaluating accommodation requests under Title VII. Title VII 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.
Also, there may be state (and local) law considerations when determining a suitable accommodation.