Employers Now Have a Much Heavier Burden in Proving “Undue Hardship” Related to Employee Requests for Religious Accommodation

By Amber E. Storr, Esq.

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision titled Groff v. DeJoy, which imposes a new, increased burden on employers who receive a request to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. The standard is no longer whether the request would impose more than a “de minimis” cost on the employer, but whether the employer would have to incur a “substantial” increased cost.

Under federal law Title VII, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice unless the employer is unable to do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Since the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in TWA v. Hardison, the courts have applied a test whereby if the employer could show that the accommodation would result in more than a de minimis cost or burden, then it does not have to accommodate the religious practice.  This burden was not particularly difficult to meet in many instances. Until now, that is.

In Groff, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the de minimis standard is not the correct interpretation of the Hardison decision and Title VII language. The Court determined that the correct test for whether an accommodation is an “undue hardship” is whether the employer can show that “the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”  This new Groff decision contains no precise formula as to how to apply the “substantial increased cost” test, but expects the lower courts and the EEOC to analyze the impact to the employer in the context of all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodation requested, in light of the nature, size and operating cost.

Groff was an Evangelical Christian rural mail carrier associate for the United States Postal Service who refused to work Sundays due to his religious belief that his Sabbath was for worship and rest, not “secular labor” and “transportation of worldly goods.” At the time of hire, he was not required to work on Sundays, but as time went on and the USPS began facilitating Amazon deliveries, that changed. When he was first required to participate in rotations involving Sunday work, he was able to avoid it for some time by transferring to a small 7-employee rural station that wasn’t part of the Sunday delivery rotations. Soon after, the tiny station also became subject to the Amazon Sunday delivery rotations. Groff refused to work on Sundays and his Sunday shifts had to be covered by other employees, including a postmaster who normally does not do deliveries. Groff received progressive discipline for these refusals. Finally, he resigned, claiming he expected his employment to be terminated. He then sued under Title VII.

The District Court dismissed Groff’s case after analyzing the USPS undue hardship under the “more than de minimis” standard. The Third Circuit affirmed on appeal, finding that exempting Groff from Sunday work “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that “undue hardship” has to be a much heavier burden than simply showing the accommodation would impose some sort of additional cost. The costs need to “rise to the level of hardship” and that the “burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable’ level.” The Court noted that the Third Circuit failed to consider other relevant context-specific factors, such as the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees. The case was remanded to the lower courts to apply the new standard.

It will take some time for cases to be decided to know exactly how the EEOC and courts apply this standard in the context of various circumstances and businesses. Stay tuned. But what is certain is that employers can expect more religious accommodation requests. When considering these requests, employers must identify and calculate the costs to their individual business. Employers denying such requests must be able to demonstrate substantial increased cost and hardship to the business in order to meet the new test.

The attorneys at Hurwitz Fine P.C. will be monitoring the decisions and are here to help employers with advice or to defend any claims.


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