Seventh Circuit Hands Win to Employers in Religious Discrimination Claim
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently handed a win to employers in EEOC v. Walmart. It held that Walmart did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) when it withdrew an offer of employment from a candidate who, after receiving the offer, advised Walmart that he was unable to work between sundown on Friday and sundown Saturday for religious observation. The Court held that Walmart’s offer to have the candidate apply for other hourly positions was a reasonable accommodation, and that anything more would have imposed an undue hardship on Walmart.
In April 2016, the Walmart store in Hayward, Wisconsin, offered Edward Hedican (Hedican) a position as one of eight assistant managers. After receiving the offer, Hedican, a Seventh Day Adventist, advised Walmart that he could not work between sundown on Friday and sundown Saturday for religious observation. The store’s Human Resources Manager, Lori Ahern, assessed whether the store could accommodate Hedican’s religious practices. She determined that accommodating Hedican’s schedule would pose an undue hardship for the store. Specifically, Ahern determined that accommodating the request would leave the store short-handed at times, would require Walmart to hire a ninth assistant manager, or would require the other seven assistant managers to cover extra shifts, despite their preference not to. Accordingly, Walmart rescinded Hedican’s job offer. Instead, Ahern encouraged Hedican to apply for an hourly management position. Hedican did not do so and, instead, filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC decided to bring suit against Walmart on behalf of Hedican, alleging that Walmart engaged in religious discrimination under Title VII.
Title VII Religious Discrimination Claim
Title VII forbids employment discrimination on account of religion and mandates that employers provide reasonable accommodations for the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of employees. An employer is not required to provide for an accommodation that would cause “undue hardship” for the employer. An accommodation poses an undue hardship when it causes more than a de minimis, or trivial, cost or burden. Determining whether an accommodation would result in an undue hardship requires a case-by-case analysis.
Walmart argued that its invitation to Hedican encouraging him to apply for an hourly management position was a reasonable accommodation and that anything further would have caused an undue hardship. It moved for summary judgment on this basis, which the Western District Court of Wisconsin granted in its favor. The EEOC appealed.
On appeal, the EEOC argued that it was not a “reasonable accommodation” to merely offer Hedican the opportunity to apply for the hourly management position, instead of actually offering him the position. The EEOC further argued that Walmart could have offered Hedican several accommodations such as letting him trade shifts with other assistant managers, or simply accepting there would be fewer assistant managers on certain weekends. It argued that Walmart’s failure to do so was religious discrimination.
Seventh Circuit Decision
The Seventh Circuit Court rejected the EEOC’s arguments and affirmed the District Court. The Court held that Walmart’s offer encouraging Hedican to apply for the hourly management position was a reasonable accommodation. The Court held that it was inconsequential whether Walmart encouraged Hedican to apply for the position as opposed to actually offering him the position, as Hedican had no interest in accepting the hourly position anyway.
The Court also rejected the EEOC’s argument that Walmart could have offered other accommodations such as permitting Hedican to trade shifts with other assistant managers. The Court explained that that would not be an accommodation by the employer, but rather a burden on other employees. The Court explained that, “Title VII does not require an employer to offer an ‘accommodation’ that comes at the expense of other workers.” The Court reiterated its prior decisions holding that “an employer need not disturb the job preferences of other employees to accommodate an employee’s religious observance.” The Court also rejected the EEOC’s argument that Walmart simply accept that there would be fewer assistant managers on certain weekends. The Court held that this would be more than a slight burden, especially when one considers that illness, vacations, etc., would further reduce the number of assistant managers available.
Walmart’s handling of this situation may be instructive to employers. Specifically, Walmart considered several factors in determining whether it could accommodate Hedican’s time-off requests, including the role of an assistant manager at the store, the staffing needs of the store, and how Hedican’s request would impact the store’s operation and coverage for management calls. While the specific factors may vary depending on the request, the position, and the business, employers should employ the same level of detailed analysis to determine if an accommodation is possible.
This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured online in the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.