On June 29, 2023, in a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified Title VII’s “undue hardship” standard for employers denying religious accommodations. The Court explicitly held that, in order to satisfy Title VII’s “undue hardship” requirement, an employer must show that the burden imposed by granting the requested accommodation would be substantial in the overall context of its business.
The Court reviewed its prior decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), known for the often-quoted sentence: “To require [an employer] to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give … [an employee his or her accommodation] is an undue hardship.” While many lower courts have adopted that sentence and applied it as the authoritative paradigm, the Court deemed that doing so was erroneous. The Court explained that the Hardison case, when viewed in context and alongside the language of Title VII, reinforced that a showing of “more than a de minimis cost” is insufficient to establish an “undue hardship.”
According to the Court, in order to establish an “undue hardship,” an employer denying a religious accommodation must show that granting the accommodation would subject it to substantial costs or expenditures. Courts applying this newly clarified standard will have to undertake a fact-specific inquiry, considering all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impacts, in light of the nature, size, and operating costs of the employer.
The Court also addressed two related issues, which, in its opinion, resulted from years of erroneous Hardison interpretations. First, the Court clarified that an accommodation’s impact on co-workers is only relevant if that impact has further ramifications on an employer’s business. Co-workers’ dislike for a particular religious practice or expression or the very notion of accommodating religious beliefs is not, in itself, an “undue burden.” Second, the Court explained that, when faced with a religious accommodation request, an employer cannot merely address the reasonableness of one particular accommodation. Thus, when faced with an accommodation request to avoid working on the Sabbath, an employer cannot simply conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime constitutes an “undue hardship” and deny the request. An employer must consider all other options, such as shift-swapping, first.
The Supreme Court’s opinion clarifies the “undue hardship” standard employers must meet in order to deny religious accommodations. With this new opinion, employees will likely pursue more religious accommodations in the workplace. Employers must be aware of the newly clarified standard for denying the same and, in the event of a denial, be prepared to inform the courts of the costs or expenditures the employer would be subjected to if it had granted the accommodation and how those costs and expenditures would impose a substantial burden in the specific context of the employer’s business.
In light of this fundamental shift in the law interpreting Title VII, employers faced with a request for a religious accommodation should consult with employment lawyers to be sure they are properly applying the new guidance from our highest court.
For assistance or answers to questions about this legal insight, please contact the authors or any member of the Steptoe & Johnson Labor & Employment Compliance Team.