The US Supreme Court is set to consider whether its own definition of “undue hardship” with respect to religious accommodation requests remains valid when it hears the oral argument in Groff v. DeJoy (“Groff”). When analyzing undue hardship, the Court will also consider whether an accommodation that burdens other employees can be said to burden the employer. The oral argument is scheduled for April 18, 2023.
Religious Discrimination and Reasonable Accommodation
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) requires covered employers with at least 15 employees to reasonably accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs or observances conflict with work requirements unless doing so would create an “undue hardship” for the employer.
“Undue hardship” is not defined by statute. Thus, courts have relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1977 case of TWA v. Hardison (“Hardison”). In Hardison, the Court stated that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Saturdays off [to an employee] is an undue hardship.”
Background to Groff
Petitioner Gerald Groff, a rural mail carrier for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”), observes the Sabbath every Sunday. Initially, he was able to avoid working Sundays. However, after USPS contracted with an online retailer in 2013 to perform Sunday package deliveries, Groff informed USPS that his religious beliefs prohibited him from working on Sundays. USPS tried to find other carriers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts, but their attempts often failed due to a shortage of rural carriers. Ultimately, USPS declined Groff’s request to exempt him from Sunday work because the requested accommodation would lead to undue hardship for USPS.
USPS disciplined Groff for missing his scheduled Sunday shifts. Groff eventually resigned in 2019 and filed a lawsuit against USPS, claiming that they had violated Title VII by failing to honor his religious beliefs and provide him with religious accommodation.
Does an “Undue Hardship” Exist?
USPS argues that providing Groff with Sundays off created morale and scheduling problems, and “resentment towards management”. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit relied on Hardison and analyzed whether USPS’ refusal to exempt Groff from Sunday work created “more than a de minimis cost” for USPS. The Court concluded that it would because it would burden Groff’s co-workers, disrupt the workplace and workflow, diminish morale, and damage USPS’ operations.
The Supreme Court granted the petition for a writ of certiorari. In challenging the Supreme Court’s decades-old precedent, Groff argues that per the plain meaning rule of statutory construction, “undue hardship” suggests that “an employer must incur significant costs or difficulty before it is excused from offering an accommodation”. This construction is more in line with the undue hardship test used in cases arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, he argues that the de minimis test from Hardison “effectively nullifies the statute’s promise of a workplace free from religious discrimination.”
What Should I Do as an Employer?
Employers covered by Title VII should review their accommodation policies and practices. When faced with a religious accommodation request, covered employers should engage in a good faith interactive process with the employee, consider the request and possible accommodations, and consider whether accommodation might cause the employer undue hardship. An accommodation may cause an undue hardship if it is “costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.”
MNK Law will continue to monitor developments related to the Groff case. For more information on Title VII and religious accommodations, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between MNK Law and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material.
 US Department of Labor, ‘Religious Discrimination and Accommodation in the Federal Workplace’ available at <https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/civil-rights-center/internal/policies/religious-discrimination-accommodation#:~:text=Title%20VII%20requires%20federal%20agencies%2C%20upon%20notice%20of%20a%20request,would%20create%20an%20undue%20hardship>