On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which heightened the burden that employers bear in proving that an employee’s request for a religious accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Before Groff, an employer could deny a request for a religious accommodation if it imposed anything more than a minimal burden on the employer’s business. Following Groff, an employer may not refuse and, therefore, must accommodate an employee’s request for a religious-based accommodation unless the proposed accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of the employer’s business.
The law at issue in Groff was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against discrimination on the basis of religion, in addition to other protected classes (e.g., race, nationality, sex). Under Title VII, employers with 15 or more employees must make reasonably requested accommodations for their employees’ religious observance and sincerely held religious beliefs, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business. While courts interpreting Title VII have historically defined the concept of religion broadly, they have denied accommodation requests if they impose even a minimal burden on employers.
Mr. Groff, the plaintiff in Groff v. DeJoy, was an employee of the United States Postal Service, and an evangelical Christian who believed that Sunday should be reserved for rest. Mr. Groff normally did not work Sundays, but was asked to do so after the Postal Service contracted with Amazon to make Sunday deliveries. Mr. Groff requested an exemption from Sunday service based on his religious beliefs. The Postal Service refused, citing as an undue burden on its business the negative effect that granting such an accommodation would have on other employees’ work schedules and morale. Mr. Groff eventually resigned and filed suit under Title VII.
The Postal Service’s proffered reason for denying his requested accommodation satisfied the “de minimis” burden that the Postal Service had to bear under the Supreme Court’s previous leading case, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (“TWA”). In TWA, the employer refused an employee’ request to have Saturdays off to observe the Sabbath, citing the inevitable violation of union seniority rules such an accommodation would entail. In finding for TWA, the Supreme Court stated that requiring the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost . . . is an undue hardship.”
A Shift in the Law
Before arriving at the Supreme Court, Groff came before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which applied the de minimis test from TWA and found that the Postal Service had met its burden to deny Mr. Groff’s scheduling-related accommodation. Mr. Groff appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed, announcing a new standard that now governs how employers must evaluate requests for religious accommodations. Specifically, employers can no longer routinely deny accommodation requests — usually, in the form of scheduling exemptions — out of hand simply because of conflicts with the schedules of other employees.
Notably, despite this material change in law, the Supreme Court stated that it was not overruling TWA. In fact, the Groff court took pains to state that the lower courts (essentially unanimously) had artificially confined the holding in TWA to its one reference to a de minimis cost and ignored the broader context of the decision, which hinged on the employer’s contractual obligation to honor union seniority rights. Going back to the statutory text of Title VII, the Supreme Court reasoned that the reference not only to a hardship, but an undue hardship, meant that the employer must bear something beyond a minimal burden. Pulling language directly from a footnote in the TWA decision, the Groff court ruled that an employer suffered an undue hardship when it had to bear “substantial increased costs” in relation to the conduct of its particular business.
What Does Groff Mean Going Forward?
The Groff decision raises interesting questions going forward, not only as to what qualifies as a substantial increased cost, but also as to what type of accommodation requests by employees may be couched as religious ones. For example, Justice Alito’s opinion cited to the EEOC’s prior attempts to soften the interpretation of TWA wherein the EEOC argued that administrative costs of reworking schedules and the infrequent paying of premium or substitute wages would not be an undue burden for employers. The Court then cited to the dreaded “fact-specific inquiry” that employers will have to conduct in the overall context of their business, which logically would include factors like the overall size and profitability of the business; available labor for schedule swaps; contractual limitations on schedule swaps, e.g., through collective bargaining agreements; the number of persons requesting accommodations; acute business needs that could be impacted by one or more schedule swaps.
Recognizing that the current Court objectively has advanced the expression of religious beliefs in and outside of the workplace, employers have to expect that they will receive additional accommodation requests and that the persons issuing these requests will have both the know-how and means to litigate the denial of any such requests. Accordingly, employers either are going to have to accept schedule swaps and the potential negative implications on workplace morale (when employees not religiously opposed to working on Sundays are asked to do so) or conduct a fact-specific inquiry to then support the denial of accommodation requests.
AGG will continue to monitor new case law applying Groff.