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Today’s Supreme Court Decision Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard For Religious Accommodations In The Workplace: What You Need To Know

by | Jun 29, 2023 | News From The Supreme Court

Today, June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. ____ (2023) addressing what must be shown to establish an undue hardship defense to providing religious accommodation to an employee. Previously, an employer was required to reasonable accommodate an employee’s bona fide religious beliefs and practices, unless it could demonstrate that providing an accommodation would result in more than a de minimus cost which constitutes an undue hardship on the conduct of its business. The Court’s decision addressed the “more than a de minimus cost” standard previously established by the Court in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) and clarified it.

Gerald Groff worked for the United States Postal Service as a rural carrier. USPS has a contract with Amazon to deliver Amazon packages, including on Sundays. The Postmaster at the post office where Mr. Groff worked at the time informed him that he would need to work on Sundays during peak season for delivering packages, or find another position. He requested accommodation for his religion, evangelical Christian, to not have to work on Sundays. The Postmaster offered to adjust his schedule to allow him to report to work after attending services on Sunday mornings, or seek out others to cover his shifts. However, the Agency maintained that granting his request to be fully excused from work on Sundays posed an undue hardship to operations, and issued him progressive discipline after he did not report to work.

Mr. Groff resigned and subsequently filed two EEO complaints, and filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court after he received a Final Agency Decision finding USPS did not discriminate against him. The U.S. District Court judge issued summary judgment in favor of USPS, noting that it attempted to facilitate shift swaps with other employees, and USPS met its burden to show that exempting Mr. Groff from working on Sundays would result in more than a de minimus cost. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment, paving the way for the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari in January and address the Hardison standard.

Today’s 9-0 decision, authored by Justice Alito, holds that Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would be result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business. The Court explicitly moved away from the “more than a de minimus cost” standard set by Hardison, finding the phrase does not fully encapsulate what an employer’s undue hardship defense must include.

The Court held that in order to establish an undue hardship, an em¬ployer must show that the burden of granting an accommo¬dation would result in substantial increased costs in rela¬tion to the conduct of its particular business. This must take into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accom¬modations at issue, and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of the employer.

The Court noted that a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance and regulations on religious accommodation, will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by the clarifying decision today, noting that there may be little, if any, change in the agency’s guidance explaining why no undue hardship is im¬posed by temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occa¬sional shift swapping, or administrative costs.

The Court also specified that an employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is “undue,” and a hardship that is attributable to other employee animosity to a particular religion, or to religion in general, cannot be used to support an undue hardship defense.

The Court vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded Mr. Groff’s case to be addressed under the revised standard of “undue hardship.” The Court concluded, “Without foreclosing the possibility that USPS will prevail, we think it appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard, and to decide whether any further factual development is needed.”

Justice Sotomayor issued a concurring opinion, with Justice Jackson joining, addressing that undue hardship on an employer’s business necessarily has an impact on the business’s employees.