Unanimous Supreme Court Tosses the Decades-Old “De Minimis” Standard in Religious Accommodation Cases
Yesterday, in Groff v. DeJoy, a unanimous Supreme Court jettisoned the standard that courts and employers have relied on for decades to determine the existence of an “undue hardship” as a basis to reject religious accommodation requests. After Groff, an employer can reject a religious accommodation request as an undue burden only if granting the accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs” for the employer.
Standard Before Groff
Historically, an employer could show undue hardship if the proposed religious accommodation had more than a minimal cost or burden on the employer—i.e., “more than a de minimis cost.” This standard (under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) was far easier for employers to satisfy than the undue hardship standard for disability accommodation requests (under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)). Under the ADA, an employer can show undue hardship only if the disability accommodation results in “significant difficulty or expense.” The Court’s ruling in Groff narrows, but does not eliminate, this divide between undue hardship standards.
Mr. Groff was a former United States Postal Service (USPS) postal worker. He did not want to work on Sundays, preferring to spend that time engaged in worship and other activities. Although he transferred to a rural post office that did not make Sunday deliveries, USPS later entered into a package delivery agreement with Amazon that included Sunday deliveries. As a result, Mr. Groff was expected to work on some Sundays. When Mr. Groff continued to refuse Sunday work, he began receiving progressive discipline.
Mr. Groff eventually resigned and later sued, arguing that USPS could have accommodated his request not to work on Sundays. The district court rejected his argument. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed that USPS had satisfied the “de minimis cost” standard, finding that granting Mr. Groff’s request would have “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
This week, the Supreme Court overruled the Third Circuit, holding the “de minimis cost” standard was incorrect and that when assessing religious accommodation claims, the employer’s burden is to show that granting the accommodation results in “substantial increased costs” for the employer. Mr. Groff had urged the Court to adopt the “significant difficulty or expense” standard developed under the ADA. USPS wanted the Court to adopt the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation of undue hardship, which supported the “more than a de minimis cost” standard. Rejecting both approaches as going “too far,” the Court held that undue hardship “means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”
The Court also explained that an employer’s burden to reasonably accommodate does not end when an employer finds undue hardship. Instead, at that point, employers must consider other possible accommodations. It likewise clarified that, when assessing undue hardship, the focus is on undue hardship to the business, not the employee’s coworkers. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Jackson, however, filed a concurrence on this point, noting occasions may exist where undue hardship to the business includes undue hardship to its employees.
Next Steps for Employers
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