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Employee’s Religious Accommodation Requests Must Be Reasonable, Federal Appeals Court Rules

Date: 1.4.2013

While an employee with religious restrictions that prevent him or her from performing certain job duties can request an accommodation from his or her employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the request must be reasonable. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s proposed accommodations on behalf of a dump truck driver who was terminated because he refused to work on his Sabbath were not reasonable, the federal court of appeals in Richmond has ruled. EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, Grading, Paving, & Utilities, Inc., No. 11-1897 (4th Cir. Dec. 14, 2012) (per curiam) (unpublished). The Court affirmed summary judgment for the employer.

Facts

Thompson Contracting, Graving, Paving, and Utilities, Inc. provided grading, paving, and utility services for transportation projects in eastern North Carolina. The company’s normal workweek was Monday through Friday, but occasionally employees were required to work on Saturday to meet project deadlines or to make up for days lost due to bad weather. Banayah Yisrael worked as a dump truck driver at Thompson. Mr. Yisrael adhered to the Hebrew Israelite faith and observed his Sabbath on Saturday. After Mr. Yisrael refused to work three different Saturdays, Thompson terminated his employment. Mr. Yisrael then filed a complaint with the EEOC.

District Court Proceedings

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of Mr. Yisrael alleging that Thompson violated Title VII by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for Mr. Yisrael’s religious beliefs. Thompson moved for summary judgment. 

During the summary judgment proceedings, the EEOC proposed three possible accommodations: (1) the company could have excused Mr. Yisrael from work on Saturdays and hired hourly contract drivers in his place, (2) the company could have created a pool of substitute drivers from current employees in other positions, or (3) the company could have transferred Mr. Yisrael to the general equipment operator position. 

The district court, finding none of the EEOC’s proposals were reasonable, granted summary judgment in favor of Thompson. The court rejected the first two proposed accommodations after concluding that Thompson had met its burden of showing that each would have resulted in an undue hardship on the company’s business. The court also rejected the third accommodation finding that Thompson reasonably believed Mr. Yisrael would not have accepted such a position. 

Appeals Court Ruling

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The Court reiterated its holding in EEOC v. Firestone Fibers & Textiles Co., 515 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2008), that once a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of religious discrimination under Title VII, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to demonstrate either (1) it provided a reasonable accommodation for the plaintiff’s religious observances or (2) providing such an accommodation would have created an undue hardship on the employer. While the two prongs are “interrelated,” the Firestone court explained, “the ‘reasonably accommodate’ and ‘undue hardship’ inquiries [are] separate and distinct.” 

In this case, the Court found that Thompson had shown that the proposed accommodations would have created undue hardship on the company’s business, and, therefore, it was unnecessary to evaluate whether Thompson had provided a reasonable accommodation. 

First, the Court observed that Thompson employed only five dump truck drivers, and “[w]hen dump truck drivers were needed on a Saturday . . . it was not uncommon that all of Thompson’s dump truck drivers were deemed essential.” If Thompson excused Mr. Yisrael from Saturday work, the company would have had to use independent contractors, make other employees do his work, or not have had the work done at all. The Court, therefore, held that “excusing [Mr.] Yisrael from Saturday work would impose more than a de minimis cost on Thompson, resulting in an undue hardship on the conduct of its business.” 

The Court next found that creating a pool of substitute drivers who could properly fill-in for Mr. Yisrael as needed would have required Thompson to incur the cost of training employees to drive a dump truck and the expense of adding those employees to its liability insurance policies. As a result, the Court held that this proposal also would have imposed more than a de minimis cost, and thus an undue hardship, on Thompson.

Finally, the Court found the EEOC’s third proposal was unreasonable because the evidence suggested Mr. Yisrael would not have accepted a transfer to the general equipment operator position. “Thompson was not required to offer [Mr.] Yisrael an accommodation that, on the basis of his action, the company reasonably believed would be refused,” the Court ruled.

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Thompson clarifies that the religious accommodation test in the Fourth Circuit (which has jurisdiction over Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) requires an employer to show either it offered a reasonable accommodation or that accommodating the employee would have resulted in an undue hardship, but not both. Employers are not required to accommodate requests, including requests to be excused from work on the employee’s Sabbath, that would impose more than de minimis costs on the conduct of business. While Thompson makes clear that there are times when rejecting an employee’s proposed request for accommodation may be appropriate, employers should nonetheless take care when evaluating any such request to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists.

If you have any questions about this or other workplace developments, please contact Partner David E. Nagle, at (804) 649-0404 or NagleD@jacksonlewis.com, Associate Crystal L. Norrick, at (804) 649-0404 or Crystal.Norrick@jacksonlewis.com, or the Jackson Lewis attorney with whom you regularly work.


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