A recent United States Supreme Court case, Groff v. DeJoy, “clarified” the standard governing religious accommodation requests by altering the “undue hardship” framework. This landmark decision has broad implications for employers and employees alike. It is important to understand the Court’s decision and its effect on requests for accommodations in the future, explains Davenport Evans lawyer Alayna Holmstrom.
The Old: The De Minimis Standard
Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Under Title VII, employers are required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or religious observations that conflict with work requirements, unless doing so would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. What is “undue hardship”? For nearly 50 years, requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost” in providing the accommodation was considered an “undue hardship.” This previous standard focused on whether the employer would “bear more than a de minimis cost” by accommodating the employee’s request.
The New: Groff v. DeJoy and the Heightened Standard
In Groff, the Supreme Court considered whether this de minimis framework was a proper reading of Title VII and an appropriate standard for determining “undue hardship.” The plaintiff in Groff, an Evangelical Christian who worked for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”), argued his religious obligation to rest required he not work on Sundays. The USPS did not provide the plaintiff a religious accommodation, stating the requested accommodation would lead to “undue hardship” for the USPS because USPS could not find additional workers to cover the Sunday shift in the plaintiff’s rural area. The plaintiff subsequently resigned and sued, alleging the USPS could have accommodated his religious observance without “undue hardship” on its business.
Instead of applying the typical de minimis framework, however, the Supreme Court changed course. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that “undue hardship” is shown “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” The Court found the text of Title VII warranted a higher standard than the previous de minimis approach when assessing an employer’s “undue hardship” in providing accommodations. As such, the Court clarified that “courts must apply the test to take into account 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 the employer” in determining whether the request would result in “substantial increased costs” to the business. In the end, the Court essentially abandoned the previously applied de minimis framework and created a new, heightened standard when reviewing accommodation requests.
Implications for Employers
Groff emphasizes the need for employers to thoroughly evaluate the potential burden of accommodating an employee’s sincerely held religious belief. In light of this landmark decision, it is crucial for employers to understand this “clarified,” heightened standard and how best it applies within one’s business context, including re-evaluating one’s policies and procedures. Davenport Evans lawyers are here to guide employers through this new landscape, and stand by ready to help.