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The Supreme Court Increases Burdens on Employers by Upending 50 Years of Title VII Precedent

On June 29, 2023, in Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously redirected lower courts. The case involved an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation of his religious faith. Specifically, the employee refused to work on Sundays. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), the lower courts understood the undue hardship test to mean any effort or cost that was “more than…de minimis.” Those courts ruled for the employer. But the Supreme Court reversed.

Based on what the Groff Court identified as a misreading of its Hardison decision, lower courts throughout the country had applied the ‘de minimis’ test on employers for 50 years. Relying on the ordinary meaning of the text of Title VII, and on what the Court considered to be a better reading of Hardison, the Court in Groff held that “showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’…does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.”  Instead, an undue hardship is shown “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  The Court reasoned 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.”  Courts “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 practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.’” Significantly, the Court declined the parties’ invitations to endorse case law concerning accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act as guidance for the undue hardship test or to ratify the EEOC’s past interpretations of the religious accommodation requirement.

The Court also addressed recurring issues that it understood arose because of the courts’ previous misunderstanding and misapplication of Hardison. First, the Court held that a hardship 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.’”

Second, the Court held that “Title VII requires an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations.”  For example, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing an employee’s co-workers to work overtime would be an undue hardship. It would also be necessary for the employer to consider other options, such as voluntary shift swapping.

Groff is a landmark decision that imposes a significant increased burden on an employer receiving an employee’s Title VII accommodation request. Employers will need to re-evaluate how they process Title VII requests for accommodation given the Court’s new directives in Groff. The team at FHMBK is here to help you in that process if the need arises. Please let us know if we can assist you.