On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, and set a higher standard for employers to meet when denying religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Prior to Groff, employers were free to deny a religious accommodation where it imposed “more than a de minimis cost” on the employer’s business. Following Groff, however, employers must now show that the burden of granting a religious accommodation “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” This case has implications for all employers evaluating employee requests for religious accommodations, and should be carefully considered when granting or denying such requests.
Gerald Groff, the plaintiff in Groff, was an evangelical Christian rural postal carrier employed by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) in Pennsylvania. Groff believed that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest, rather than labor. During Groff’s employment, USPS contracted with a third party e-commerce website to deliver their packages on Sundays and scheduled Groff, among other carriers, for Sunday work. Although Groff requested a religious accommodation to be relieved of Sunday duty, his request was denied. When Groff refused to report to work on Sundays, other staff members were required to take over his job duties. According to USPS, this resulted in significant disruptions to its business, multiple employee complaints, and at least one union grievance from an employee required to take on Groff’s shifts. USPS subjected Groff to progressive discipline while he refused to report to work for over twenty Sunday shifts. Groff resigned and sued USPS for religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.
Under Title VII, employers are obligated to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless it imposes an “undue hardship” on the conduct of the employer’s business. Prior to Groff, courts evaluated whether a requested accommodation imposed an “undue burden” under the test set by the Supreme Court in the 1977 case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which held that an accommodation imposed an undue burden where it required an employer to bear “more than a de minimis cost.” Applying Hardison, both the trial court that initially reviewed Groff’s case and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed USPS’s decision to deny Groff’s accommodation request. More specifically, the Third Circuit held that Groff’s exemption request imposed more than a de minimis cost because it “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”
Groff appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to reconsider Hardison’s “de minimis cost” test. Instead, Groff urged the Court to adopt the test to evaluate whether a requested accommodation constitutes an “undue burden” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which requires an employer to show that the accommodation would impose a “significant difficulty or expense.” USPS, on the other hand, asked the Court to affirm Hardison and defer to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretations of what constitutes an “undue burden” in the religious accommodation context.
In a 9-0 opinion authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit, ruling that it applied the wrong test to Groff’s Title VII claims. However, the Court declined to adopt either Groff or USPS’s proposed tests, holding that both went “too far.” Analyzing Hardison and the language of Title VII, the Court determined that the “de minimis cost” test was an erroneous interpretation of Hardison’s holding, and set the bar too low. As Justice Alito noted, that standard, “if taken literally, suggested that even a pittance might be too much for an employer to be forced to endure.” Instead, the Supreme Court held that the appropriate test to determine whether a requested religious accommodation imposes an undue burden under Title VII is whether it “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” taking into account “all relevant factors at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer.” Justice Alito concluded that the Third Circuit’s application of the “de minimis cost” test “may have led the court to dismiss a number of possible accommodations, including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees,” and remanded Groff for reconsideration under the new test, noting that USPS could still ultimately prevail.
In light of Groff, an employer’s denial of an employee’s religious accommodation request becomes more difficult to justify. While the standard for religious accommodations remains lower than the standard for disability-related accommodations under the ADA, a showing of “substantial increased costs” is not insignificant. Employers faced with religious accommodation requests should carefully assess the nature of the request and the impact on their business individually and explore all available alternatives prior to denying a request. We will continue to monitor the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Groff and provide updates as they become available.