Groff v. DeJoy: Employers Must Show Substantial Increased Costs to Defend Denial of Religious Accommodation as Undue Hardship

In Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. 447, 143 S.Ct. 2279 (2023), the Supreme Court held that for an employer to deny a religious accommodation for an employee as an undue hardship under Title VII, the employer must show that granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs for its particular business. The case is important because it moved away from prior cases allowing employers to deny accommodations that imposed more than a “de minimus” or minimal cost on the employer, thereby strengthening the rights of employees to religious accommodations. 

Statutory and Regulatory Background

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful for covered employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment, because of such individual’s … religion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1).

In 1972, following EEOC regulatory guidance on religious discrimination, Congress amended Title VII to clarify that employers must “reasonably accommodate… an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice” unless the employer is “unable” to do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j).

In Groff, the Supreme Court addressed the meaning of “undue hardship” under this section. 

Facts

Groff was an Evangelical Christian. For religious reasons, he believed that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest. Groff had a mail delivery job with the United States Postal Service. For many years, Groff’s position generally did not involve Sunday work. That changed after USPS agreed to handle Sunday deliveries for Amazon. To avoid the new requirement to work some Sundays, Groff transferred to a rural USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries. 600 U.S. 447, 454-55.

After the rural station began doing Sunday deliveries as well, Groff remained unwilling to work Sundays, resulting in USPS redistributing his Sunday deliveries to other USPS staff. Groff received “progressive discipline” for failing to work on Sundays. He eventually resigned. 600 U.S. at 454-55.

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.” 600 U.S. 447, 456 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j)). The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment for USPS, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977)600 U.S. at 456. The Third Circuit interpreted Hardison to mean “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.” 600 U.S. at 456 (quoting 35 F.4th 162, 174, n. 18 (quoting 432 U.S. at 84)). The Third Circuit found the de minimis cost standard met in Groff’s case, concluding that exempting him from Sunday work had “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” 600 U.S. at 456 (quoting 35 F.4th at 175).

The Court’s Decision: In Religious Accommodation Cases, Undue Hardship Entails Substantial Increased Costs in Relation to the Conduct of the Employer’s Business. 

The Groff Court reversed. It held that Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to an employee as an undue hardship show that granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of the employer’s particular business. 600 U.S. at 456-73.

The Court held that showing “more than a de minimis cost,” as that phrase is commonly used, does not suffice for an employer to show an “undue hardship” under Title VII’s religious accommodation provisions. 600 U.S. at 468. Rather, the Court interpreted Hardison to mean that an “undue hardship” is shown “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. Id. This is a fact-specific inquiry. Id.

To apply this “substantial burden” test, the Court indicated that courts should take into account all the 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.” 600 U.S. at 470-71 (cleaned up, internal quotes and cite omitted).

The Court further addressed the language in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j) requiring that the undue hardship be “on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Id. The Court emphasized that Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommodation’s effect on “the conduct of the employer’s business.” 600 U.S. at 472. Thus, the impacts of an accommodation on co-workers are relevant only to the extent they “affec[t] the conduct of the business.” 600 U.S. at 472 (citation omitted).

Similarly, the Court further observed that “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 cannot be considered ‘undue.’” 600 U.S. at 472. Similarly, “bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation” cannot provide a defense to a religious accommodation claim. Id

Turning to the situation in Groff’s case, the Court observed that “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.” 600 U.S. at 473. Thus, when an employer is “[f]aced 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.” Id. Rather, “[c]onsideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.” Id.

Analysis

In sum, Groff held that for an employer to deny a religious accommodation for an employee as an undue hardship, the employer must show that granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs for its particular business. The case is important because it moved away from prior cases allowing employers to deny accommodations that imposed more than a “de minimus” or minimal cost on the employer, thereby strengthening the rights of employees to religious accommodations. 

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The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice, is not intended to be legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Coffield PLC and attorney Tim Coffield welcome your calls, emails, and contact forms. Contacting Coffield PLC or Tim does not create an attorney-client relationship.