Supreme Court Recalibrates ‘Reasonable Accommodation’ Test

Recently, in a unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court recalibrated the Title VII “reasonable accommodation” test for matters involving religious discrimination. Title VII requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs, observances, and practices, when requested, unless accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” on business operations.  For over forty-five years, courts have relied on a “more than a de minimis cost” standard in interpreting “undue hardship.” Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977).

Writing for the majority in Groff, Justice Alito noted that the while many lower courts viewed the phrase “de minimis cost” as “the authoritative interpretation of the statutory term ‘undue hardship,’ it is doubtful that it was meant to take on that large role.” Accordingly, the Court held that “showing ‘more than a de minimis cost’…does not establish ‘undue hardship.’” Instead, the Court adopted an understanding that “’undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”

Under the new standard, 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.”

The Court also held that “[a]n employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is ‘undue,’ and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue.’” Two key take aways here are (1) “Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommodation’s effect on the ‘conduct of the employer’s business’” and (2) “Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assesses the reasonableness of a particular accommodation or accommodations.”

The Court provided some guidance for employers on what might rise to the level of “undue hardship.” Justice Alito pointed out that in Hardison, the Court referenced terms “substantial additional costs” and “substantial expenditures.” Lower courts will likely use these phrases as guideposts as newly filed religious discrimination cases wind through the court system.

In the wake of Groff, employers need to be prepared to change the way they evaluate religious accommodation requests. For example, whereas courts may have previously held that administrative costs associated with reworking schedules or the infrequent payment of premium wages for substitute wages presented an “undue hardship,” it is likely that either would present an “undue hardship” under the new standard.

As always, we are here to help you with all of your employment needs. If you have any questions about how the Groff may affect your business or if you need guidance in evaluating religious accommodation requests for your employees, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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