The Supreme Court has broadened religious accommodations in a closely watched case, clarifying the Title VII undue hardship standard for employers.
A Sunday Sabbath observer, Gerald Groff’s religious beliefs dictate that Sunday is meant for worship and rest. Groff, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), informed his employer that he was unable to work on Sundays.
USPS contracted with Amazon to make package deliveries on Sundays and Groff was included in the schedule. Groff’s manager offered to adjust his schedule to permit him to attend religious services on Sunday morning and report to work afterward, but Groff’s beliefs include a prohibition on all work on Sundays.
Later, Groff’s manager sought out other employees to cover his Sunday shifts; another postal worker agreed to take the shifts but was injured and then unable to work them.
As a result of his not working on Sundays, Groff faced progressive discipline. He eventually quit and filed suit alleging USPS violated Title VII because it failed to provide him with a religious accommodation.
Relying on a standard established by the Supreme Court in 1977’s Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, USPS argued that allowing Groff to take all Sundays off would create an undue hardship on the employer because of the burden it would place on Groff’s coworkers.
A district court and the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the employer.
Groff filed a petition for certiorari, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
In a unanimous opinion, the Court reversed, clarifying the Title VII undue hardship standard for employers.
Lower courts latched onto the “de minimis” language found in the Hardison opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, although the decision repeatedly referred to “substantial” burdens.
The impact of the de minimis standard has “blessed the denial of even minor accommodation in many cases, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market,” according to religious organizations filing amicus briefs, he noted.
“We hold that showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII,” Justice Alito said. “We … understand Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. This fact-specific inquiry comports with both Hardison and the meaning of ‘undue hardship’ in ordinary speech.”
The Court declined to adopt a favored synonym for undue hardship.
“We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” Justice Alito wrote. “[C]ourts 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 practice impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.'”
The justices offered further guidance, adding that a good deal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance will likely be unaffected by the decision and that a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered “undue.”
Further, 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, the Court said.
“Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship,” Justice Alito wrote. “Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”
Having clarified the Title VII undue hardship standard, the Court left its context-specific application to the lower courts in the first instance, remanding to the district court for further proceedings.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
To read the opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, click here.
Why it matters
In light of the new undue hardship standard clarified by the Supreme Court, employers must reevaluate how they handle religious accommodation requests from employees. Instead of demonstrating that a requested accommodation could not be met because it created a de minimis burden—like the cost of overtime for other employees to work on Sunday in lieu of Groff—employers face a higher threshold, having to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.