Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate the religious practices of their employees, unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 landmark decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), many lower courts interpreted “undue hardship” to mean any effort or cost that is “more than . . . de minimis.” On June 29, 2023 the Supreme Court “clarified” what Title VII requires in the unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, 143 S.Ct. 2279 (2023), without overruling its 1977 decision in Hardison.

1. Background

The litigation was initiated by Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian who believes for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest, not “secular labor” and the transportation of “worldly goods.” Groff began his employment with the United States Postal Service (“USPS”), which has more than 600,000 employees. He became a rural carrier associate, a job that required him to assist regular carriers in the delivery of mail.

When he took the position, it generally did not involve Sunday work. But within a few years, that changed. In 2013, USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries, and in 2016, USPS signed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) with the union that set out how Sunday and holiday parcel delivery would be handled. During a two-month peak season, each post office would use its own staff to deliver packages. At all other times, Sunday and holiday deliveries would be carried out by employees (including rural carrier associates like Groff) working from a regional hub.

The MOU specifies the order in which USPS employees are to be called for Sunday work outside the peak season. With Groff unwilling to work on Sundays, USPS made other arrangements. During the peak season, Sunday deliveries that would have otherwise been performed by Groff were carried out by the rest of the staff, including the postmaster, whose job ordinarily does not involve delivering mail. During other months, Groff’s Sunday assignments were redistributed to other carriers assigned to the regional hub. Throughout this time, Groff continued to receive “progressive discipline” for failing to work on Sundays. Finally, in January 2019, he resigned.

2. The Lower Court Decisions

Groff filed suit under Title VII, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business.” The district court granted summary judgment to USPS, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, construing Hardison to mean “that requiring an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.” The Third Circuit concluded that exempting Groff from Sunday work “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” The Supreme Court agreed to review the decision, recognizing that the case presented the Supreme Court’s first opportunity in nearly 50 years to explain the contours of Hardison.

3. The Supreme Court Vacated The Third Circuit’s Decision

The Supreme Court held that merely showing “more than a de minimis cost” does not suffice to establish undue hardship or a defense to religious discrimination under Title VII. Instead, in determining an employer’s undue hardship defense, Hardison referred repeatedly to “substantial” burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision. The Supreme Court described Hardison to mean that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. A fact-specific inquiry is required to make this determination.

4. Substantial Increased Costs Must Be Shown

The Supreme Court stated it is enough to say that what an employer must show is 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 to take 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.

The Court declined to adopt the elaborations of the applicable standard that the parties suggested, either to incorporate Americans With Disabilities Act caselaw or opine that the EEOC’s construction of Hardison had been basically correct. Even though the Court recognized that a “good deal” of the EEOC’s guidance was sensible, it found it imprudent to ratify in toto a body of EEOC interpretations that has not had the benefit of the clarification adopted by the Court in Groff.

5. Additional Clarifications Of Recurring Issues

The Supreme Court hastened to add clarifications regarding several “recurring issues.” First, it observed that Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommodation’s effect on “the conduct of the employer’s business.” Impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those coworker impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business. Further, a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice, does not provide a defense because it cannot be considered “undue.” Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation thus cannot supply a defense.

Second, Title VII requires that an employer “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations. Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.

6. Conclusion

The Supreme Court clarified the Title VII undue-hardship standard. It then determined it was appropriate to leave the context-specific application of that clarified standard to the lower courts in the first instance. Because the Third Circuit assumed that Hardison prescribed a “more than a de minimis cost” test, it may have misled the court to dismiss a number of possible accommodations, including those involving the cost of incentive pay or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.

The Supreme Court did not foreclose the possibility that USPS will prevail, but thought it appropriate to leave to the lower courts to apply its clarified context-specific standard, and to decide whether any further factual development is needed. It vacated the judgment of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the Third Circuit for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

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About The Author

Richard J. Simmons is a Partner in the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP in Los Angeles. He represents employers in various employment law matters involving litigation throughout the country and general advice regarding state and federal wage and hour laws, employment discrimination, wrongful discharge, employee discipline and termination, employee benefits, affirmative action, union representation proceedings, and arbitrations. Mr. Simmons received his B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Massachusetts, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar and graduated in the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. He received his J.D. from Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Industrial Relations Law Journal, now the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law.

Mr. Simmons argued the only case before the California Supreme Court that produced a victory for employers and business in 2018. He was recently recognized as the Labor and Employment Attorney of the Year by the Los Angeles Business Journal and was inducted into the Employment Lawyers Hall of Fame. He has lectured nationally on wage and hour, employment discrimination, wrongful termination, and other employment and labor relations matters. He is a member of the National Advisory Board to the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, published by Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley. He was also appointed by the California Industrial Welfare Commission as a member of three Minimum Wage Boards for the State of California.