For nearly 50 years, under case law interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), employers have not been required to make an accommodation for an employee’s practice of religion if doing so would impose more than a de minimis burden on the employer.
You may ask the obvious question: What is a de minimis burden? For almost half a century, this was the subject of myriad lawsuits and law review articles attempting to define and articulate the legal phrase. Needless to say, the de minimis burden standard was a fairly low threshold allowing many employers to deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation based on the Supreme Court’s 1977 case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison.
As of June 29, 2023, de minimis has a new definition, one that employers must be aware of in order to overcome a claim of religious discrimination under Title VII.
In Groff vs. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court found opportunity to clarify what they meant by a de minimis burden. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Alito confirmed that Title VII requires an employer to show that “the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” which would be based on factors such as employer size and operating costs. Groff, in essence, raised the threshold and established a significantly higher burden than courts previously required under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Hardison.
Prior to Groff, an employer could deny an employee’s request for religious accommodation just by demonstrating that it would burden the employer. Under even the simplest requests, an employer would usually be able to show a burden. For example, if an employee asked to change shifts to avoid working a holy day, which formed the basis for the Hardison and Groff cases, employers only had to show that accommodating such a request would either cost a minor amount of money or unfairly impose upon other employees.
The de minimis standard no longer has the same meaning post-Groff. The Court explicitly pointed out how over the years, lower courts have incorrectly latched onto de minimis as the governing standard even though the language in Hardison described the burden on employers as having “substantial costs or expenditures.” It is worth noting Groff did not actually change the standard under which an employer should assess accommodation requests; rather, the Court simply clarified the employer’s burden when denying a particular request as an undue hardship.
The Groff opinion implied that employers should determine a reasonable accommodation in a timely manner. At the same time, it stopped short of imputing ADA standards into Title VII cases, which would have been seen as a much more drastic reach into a previously covered legal area, a “wise choice” as noted by a concurrence penned by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justice Jackson.
What do employers need to take away from the Groff vs. DeJoy case and the new definition of de minimis??
First, continue to engage in the reasonable accommodation process as you should be if you employ at least 15 or more employees. Per the Court’s opinion, it is unlikely that their holding will significantly alter the way that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) approaches religious accommodations in the future. Nevertheless, having knowledge that de minimis has a stricter definition, employers should evaluate accommodations that might no longer be considered an undue hardship.
Second, make sure to document the analysis surrounding the reasonable accommodation process to be able to demonstrate how you arrived at your decision to either grant or deny an employee’s religious accommodation request. Having this documentation can serve as important evidence in any EEOC charge or lawsuit brought as a result of denying a religious accommodation.
Finally, consult an employment law attorney when confronted with a request for religious accommodation under Title VII, especially if you have any inkling you might want to deny the request. An attorney at Stanton Law would be glad to help guide you through the complex and potentially litigious process. Schedule a consultation today.