Although the process of seeking a reasonable accommodation is most commonly encountered in analyses under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers subject to the protections of religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also must engage in an analysis of religious accommodation and undue hardship. However, the bar for establishing undue hardship and the existence and offer of a reasonable accommodation normally is much lower under Title VII than the ADA.
A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit illustrates the process for determining the existence of a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs. The plaintiff in Jean-Pierre v. Naples Community Hospital was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and his religious beliefs prohibited from working on his Sabbath, which was from sundown Friday until sundown on Saturday. At the very outset of his employment with the hospital as a clinical technician (CT), he requested a religious accommodation so he would not have to work on Saturdays. His request was granted and, for the following four years, he was not required to work Saturdays.
However, Jean-Pierre subsequently applied to transfer from his department into a second department. The grant of his transfer request was accompanied by a letter stating, in relevant part, that he was expected to work every other weekend. The first department Jean-Pierre had worked in prior to his transfer was a larger group which had a number of clinical technicians. However, the department to which he transferred was much smaller, had only four CTs, including Jean-Pierre, and, due to the nature of its work, was a “closed unit” for all employees, meaning that it staffs itself and didn’t pull employees into or out of the department to work. Saturdays were the busiest day of the week for that department. Nonetheless, it was able to accommodate Jean-Pierre for nearly two years after he transferred in. When two CTs in that department subsequently resigned, however, he was directed to work every other weekend. He provided a letter outlining his religious convictions but was advised that he needed to report to work the following Saturday anyway.
In a subsequent meeting with Human Resources, he was given three alternatives: (1) transfer to a position in which he would be called to work, if and when needed, on a day to day basis, rather than given consistent full-time employment; (2) transfer to a full-time position in another department with different hours or employees who might be able to switch shifts; or (3) swap his upcoming Saturday shift with another CT. HR sat with Jean-Pierre at a computer, helped him look up available jobs, and offered to provide further help in the future. Jean-Pierre refused all three options, was terminated and sued.
The hospital moved to dismiss the lawsuit arguing that it had offered a reasonable accommodation by virtue of its assistance and offer of further assistance with respect to seeking transfers to other available positions in the hospital, and pointed out that there were “per diem” or day to day (when needed) work positions available which Jean-Pierre did not apply for. It further argued that permitting Jean-Pierre to take Saturdays off would impose an undue hardship, given the staffing of his department.
The court noted that the hospital affirmatively had attempted to help Jean-Pierre with respect to a potential transfer to other available positions in the hospital. It further noted that, while there were day to day work positions open, the plaintiff failed or refused to apply for them. It also found that the offer of assistance with applying for other positions constituted a reasonable accommodation, as did the offer of daily work positions which were available. Finally, the court concluded, first, that it could not restructure the job and force the hospital to transfer other CTs into that particular department to work. Further, it noted that it could not force the other CT, with whom plaintiff worked, to work every Saturday. It concluded that it would not deprive the other CT of her contractual rights in order to accommodate or prefer the religious needs of the plaintiff. It upheld the dismissal of Jean-Pierre’s lawsuit.
Many, but not all, religious discrimination cases involve scheduling issues. Employers who encounter problems with a particular employee’s work schedule due to religious beliefs would be well advised to immediately enter into discussions with the employee with respect to alternatives and to fully document those discussions. In that regard, it is clear that an employer in such a situation is not required to accept the accommodation sought by the employee, but only must provide a reasonable accommodation.