Sunday, October 21, 2018
A cert petition has been filed in Patterson v. Walgreen Co., a potentially important case under the religious-accommodation provision, section 701(j), of Title VII. And St. Thomas Law's Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, which I supervise, has filed an amicus brief on behalf of Christian and Muslim organizations supporting the petition.
Patterson, a trainer for workers on Walgreen's phone-assistance line, was fired after he was unable to do an emergency training session on Saturday, his Sabbath (he is Seventh-day Adventist). But his unavailability on that occasion caused no harmful consequences: the training session went forward the following Monday and Walgreen's met the schedule it had articulated for the new phone-call policies. Instead, Walgreen's articulated that it must fire Patterson because this one-off situation would start recurring more regularly in the future, since its other trainer (who had swapped shifts with Patterson in the past) was going to move to a different company because Walgreen's was planning to sell that division in a sale to take place several months down the line. As a result, Patterson was fired at that moment based on a projected set of circumstances beginning nine months later.
The cert petition argues for review on the ground, among others, that the circuits are split on whether the employer may use such speculative future harms to meet its burden of justifying a refusal of accommodation: i.e. showing the accommodation would cause "undue hardship [to its] business." More broadly, while the accommodation provision has sometimes provided protection for employees' religiously-based dress and grooming, it's been ineffective at protecting varying Sabbath observances because the Supreme Court has interpreted the burden of showing "undue hardship" to require only a showing of a "more than de minimis harm." TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977). As the third question presented, the cert petition calls for reconsidering Hardison's interpretation.
Our amicus brief for Christians and Muslims explains how "[a]llowing employers to rely on predicted future events creates at least three problems that undermine the effectiveness of the [accommodation] provision":
First, it allows employers to fire or otherwise adversely affect employees now based on events that might never occur—events that might never necessitate the firing. Second, reliance on future, hypothetical events makes it much more difficult to identify specific accommodations that might be available at the time the conflict arises. Third, reliance on speculative or hypothetical harms relieves the employer of the duty to search for reasonable accommodation—and at the worst, may incentivize employers to dream up scenarios of future hardship.
In addition, we support the petition's argument that the Hardison interpretation of "undue hardship" should be reconsidered, based on several grounds involving the statute's text and purpose:
The ordinary meaning of “undue hardship” at the time the accommodation provision was enacted (1972) ... is irreconcilable with a standard of mere “de minimis” cost....
[T]he premise of the de minimis standard has been undercut by [the] Court’s recent decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2028 (2015) ... [which] makes clear [unlike Hardison] that [the accommodation provision] requires protection against the effects of a religion-neutral employer policy....
A weak interpretation of [the] accommodation provision is particularly harmful to religious minorities, who are particularly likely to come in conflict with formally neutral employer policies reflecting the majority’s norms.
Aaron Bostrom, class of 2020, did an excellent job drafting significant portions of the amicus brief.