On June 29, 2023, a unanimous Supreme Court held in Groff v. DeJoy that Title VII requires an employer who denies a religious accommodation to an employee to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” and that the undue hardship is “substantial in the overall context of the employer’s business.” Although the Court phrased its holding as a “clarification” of its 1977 precedent in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, in practice the decision is likely to represent a significant departure from the prior understanding that “undue hardship” meant any cost that is “more than de minimis.”
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The plaintiff, Gerald Groff, began working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (“USPS”) in 2012, at a time when Sunday work was generally not required for employee’s in Groff’s position. By 2017, however, carriers in Groff’s position were asked to begin delivering packages on Sundays. As an Evangelical Christian who believes that Sundays should be “devoted to worship and rest,” Groff was unwilling to fulfill the Sunday work requirement. Accordingly, for over a year, Groff’s Sunday deliveries were handled by other carriers at his station, and he faced “progressive discipline” for skipping his rotation, until he resigned in January 2019. Several months later, Groff sued USPS under Title VII, arguing that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business. The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to USPS, and the Third Circuit affirmed that decision.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful for covered employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment, because of such individual’s … religion.” EEOC regulations subsequently mandated religious accommodations for employees whenever such accommodations did not create “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” In 1972, Congress amended Title VII to codify the language of the EEOC’s regulations, requiring that employers “reasonably accommodate … an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice” except when doing so would place “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
In the 1977 case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether Title VII “require[s] an employer and a union who have agreed on a seniority system to deprive senior employees of their seniority rights in order to accommodate a junior employee’s religious practices.” Hardison concerned an airline maintenance worker who was fired for insubordination after missing work to observe the Sabbath. In finding that Title VII implied no such requirement, the Court stated: “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Lower courts subsequently latched onto this language to interpret the statutory term “undue hardship,” notwithstanding other parts of the Hardison decision in which the Court indicated that the undue hardship test was intended to be more substantial than “de minimis.”
In Groff, the Court sought to “clarify” the definition of “undue hardship” and the circumstances under which an employer can avoid the requirement of providing a “reasonable” religious accommodation. Citing common parlance and various dictionaries, the Court found that a requirement of “hardship” as defined as “something hard to bear,” in combination with the qualifier “undue”—meaning “excessive” or “unjustifiable”—cannot be fulfilled by a small or trivial burden as implied by the “de minimis” standard. While declining to explicitly overturn Hardison, the Court noted that the interpretation of that case’s holding that was widely adopted by lower courts is a “mistaken view,” and it rejected the “de minimis” standard.
Instead, the Court held that an “undue hardship” exists “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business,” which is a “fact-specific inquiry.” This means that “courts must apply the test in a manner that takes 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 an employer.’” The Court also noted that “a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by our clarifying decision today.” It further explained that because “Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations,” when confronting a religious accommodation request such as Mr. Groff’s, “it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.” The Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of USPS and remanded the case for further consideration consistent with its Opinion.
Under Groff, an employer must identify a substantial burden—not merely a de minimis burden—that would result should an employee’s religious accommodation be granted. For decades, employers have been able to point to any de minimis hardship to support a finding that Title VII did not require accommodation of an employee’s religious practice. But the Groff holding changes an employer’s calculus. Employers must remain cognizant of the refined standard and examine closely particular facts of each case when deciding whether to grant or deny an individual’s request for a religious accommodation.
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