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Supreme Court Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard in Religious Discrimination Claims

By Douglas Lipsky

In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy that significantly reshaped the landscape of religious discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In short, the justices replaced the “de minimis” framework and the precedent set in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) with a new, much higher, standard. 

The decision has far-reaching implications for both employers and employees, as it redefines the undue hardship standard for religious accommodation requests, departing from nearly 50 years of established precedent. Let’s take a look at the high court’s decision and its implications for employers and employees. 

The Shift in Undue Hardship Standard

Before Groff, the prevailing standard for assessing undue hardship in religious accommodation claims was whether the employer would be required to “bear no more than a de minimis cost” if it granted an employee’s religious accommodation request. If the cost exceeded this minimal threshold, the request was considered an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business and could lawfully be denied. 

However, Groff introduced a new, considerably higher standard, requiring employers to deny religious accommodation requests only when there is evidence that providing the accommodation would result in “substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of [an employer’s] particular business.” This marked change in the standard has created uncertainty in the context of religious accommodations going forward.

The Backdrop

Title VII, enacted in 1964, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. In 1972, Congress amended the statute to emphasize that employers must “reasonably accommodate” religious observances and practices unless it poses an “undue hardship on the conduct of its business.” The Groff case centered on whether the de minimis standard was an accurate interpretation of Title VII and how undue hardship should be defined concerning religious accommodation claims.

The plaintiff in this case, an Evangelical Christian, believed in reserving Sundays for worship and rest. Initially, his USPS position did not require Sunday work, but this changed when USPS began Sunday deliveries in 2013. The plaintiff requested a transfer to a rural USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries. Despite USPS making efforts to accommodate his religious observance, the plaintiff received progressive discipline and ultimately resigned in 2019.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court applied a textualist approach, emphasizing its intent to “clarify” rather than overrule the precedent in the 1977 Hardison decision. The Court argued that the use of “de minimis” was an improper interpretation of Title VII, as the words “undue” and “hardship” themselves imply a burden greater than a “mere burden” or “very small or trifling” hardship. 

The Court also noted that EEOC guidance cautioned against using administrative costs or temporary payment of premium wages as satisfying undue hardship. 

In short, the decision clarified that “undue hardship” is established when granting an accommodation would result in “substantially increased cost in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” This new standard puts the term “undue hardship” in line with both the original intent of Title VII and common understanding.

Conduct of Business

The Court provided limited guidance on what constitutes an “undue hardship” on the conduct of business, emphasizing the need for a case-by-case analysis. Employers must consider all relevant factors, including the nature, size, and operating costs of their businesses.

In any event, the focus on the “conduct of [an employer’s] business” narrows the analysis of undue hardship concerning the impact of religious accommodations on other employees. Employers must now demonstrate how such impacts directly relate to their business’s conduct, and whether they constitute a “substantial increased cost.” This approach is more rigorous than the previous de minimis analysis.

What This Means for Employers

The Groff decision is expected to trigger a surge in religious accommodation requests, making it crucial for employers to prepare. To navigate this new standard effectively, employers should consider:

  • Re-educating and training personnel involved in making religious accommodation decisions on the heightened standard and its application to their specific businesses.
  • Re-evaluating policies and procedures used when assessing religious accommodation requests to align with the new standard.
  • Applying a more rigorous assessment of religious accommodation requests by analyzing their impact on the “conduct of the business.” This analysis should be well-documented and supported by workplace evidence.
  • Implementing operational changes or modifications below the “substantial increased costs” threshold that could be offered as reasonable accommodation alternatives.
  • Offering accommodation options, even if not the employee’s initial request, to demonstrate a willingness to accommodate religious beliefs.

The Takeaway

The Groff v. DeJoy Supreme Court ruling establishes a higher standard for assessing undue hardship in religious accommodation claims. An employment lawyer can provide invaluable counsel in addressing religious discrimination claims, assisting employers in making informed decisions about religious accommodations while helping to protect employees’ rights. Reach out to our team today.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.