January 27th, 2023 by Rieders Travis in Civil Rights

Groff v. DeJoy, 35 F.4th 162, 164; 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 14195 (3d Cir. May 25, 2022) (Shwartz, C.J.)  Plaintiff Gerald Groff is a Sunday Sabbath observer whose religious beliefs dictate that Sunday is meant for worship and rest. As a result, Groff informed his employer, the United States Postal Service (“USPS”), that he was unable to work on Sundays. USPS offered to find employees to swap shifts with him, but on more than twenty Sundays, no co-worker would swap, and Groff did not work. Groff was disciplined and ultimately left USPS. Groff sued USPS for violating Title VII by failing to reasonably accommodate his religion. Because the shift swaps USPS offered to Groff did not eliminate the conflict between his religious practice and his work obligations, USPS did not provide Groff a reasonable accommodation. The accommodation Groff sought (exemption from Sunday work), however, would cause an undue hardship on USPS, and so we will affirm the District Court’s order granting summary judgment in USPS’s favor. We must first determine what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation.” The plain language of the statute directs employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious practices, so “Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.” EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. 768, 775, 135 S. Ct. 2028, 192 L. Ed. 2d 35 (2015). The Supreme Court has stated that an accommodation is reasonable if it “eliminates the conflict between employment requirements and religious practices.” Ansonia, 479 U.S. at 70 (holding an accommodation is reasonable where it “allow[s] the individual to observe fully religious holy days and requires him only to give up compensation for a day that he did not in fact work”). Our Court has said that, where a good-faith effort to accommodate a religious practice has been “unsuccessful,” the inquiry must then turn to the undue hardship analysis, which suggests that an accommodation must be effective. Getz v. Pa. Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 802 F.2d 72, 73 (3d Cir. 1986)see also US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, 400, 122 S. Ct. 1516, 152 L. Ed. 2d 589 (2002) (explaining that “the word ‘accommodation’ . . . conveys the need for effectiveness”). Thus, a legally sufficient accommodation under Title VII’s religious discrimination provision is one that eliminates the conflict between the religious practice and the job requirement. See Getz, 802 F.2d at 74 (holding that a neutral scheduling policy reasonably accommodated employee’s religious observance where there was “no conflict” between her employment and observance of religious holidays, such that she was “able to worship fully”); see also Shelton v. Univ. of Med. & Dentistry of N.J., 223 F.3d 220, 226-27 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding that a lateral transfer was a reasonable accommodation where a plaintiff “had not established that she would face a religious conflict” in the new position). Permitting a Sabbath observer to swap shifts would not be a reasonable accommodation if other employees are regularly unavailable to cover a Sabbath observer’s shifts. In addition to requiring that the accommodation eliminate the conflict, the statute requires that the offered accommodation be reasonable. The word “reasonable” is not defined, so we look to its ordinary meaning. Taniguchi, 566 U.S. at 566. Webster defines “reasonable” to mean “not conflicting with reason; not absurd; not ridiculous; being or remaining within the bounds of reason; not extreme; not excessive.” Reasonable, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1892 (3d ed. 1993). Thus, the word “reasonable” here requires that an adjustment to an otherwise neutral policy need not go beyond what is necessary to eliminate the conflict. Offering a less desirable shift, position, or location can be a reasonable accommodation. See Shelton, 223 F.3d at 228see also Sturgill, 512 F.3d at 1033 (explaining that a reasonable jury could find that Title VII’s bilateral duty of cooperation may require an employee to “accept a less desirable job or less favorable working conditions”). Even a reduction in salary associated with the accommodation may not necessarily be unreasonable. See, e.g., EEOC v. Walmart Stores E., L.P., 992 F.3d 656, 659-60 (7th Cir. 2021) (offering an hourly rather than a salaried position to accommodate a Sabbath observer was reasonable); Sanchez-Rodriguez v. AT & T Mobility P.R., Inc., 673 F.3d 1, 12-13 (1st Cir. 2012) (offering lower-paying positions, allowing shift swapping, and refraining from disciplining an employee for missing work constituted a reasonable accommodation); Bruff v. N. Miss. Health Servs., Inc., 244 244 F.3d 495, 502 n.23 (5th Cir. 2001) (reducing pay is not unreasonable). But see Baker, 445 F.3d at 548 (“[A]n offer of accommodation may be unreasonable ‘if it cause[s] [an employee] to suffer an inexplicable diminution in his employee status or benefits.'”) (quoting Cosme v. Henderson, 287 F.3d 152, 160 (2d Cir. 2002)). An employer is not required “to accommodate at all costs.” Ansonia, 479 U.S. at 70. [*174]  Where an employer’s good-faith efforts to accommodate have been unsuccessful, the inquiry turns to whether the employer demonstrated that “such an accommodation would work an undue hardship upon the employer and its business.” GEO Grp., 616 F.3d at 271. “An ‘undue hardship’ is one that results in more than a de minimis cost to the employer.” Id. at 273. Both economic and non-economic costs suffered by the employer can constitute an undue hardship. Id. The undue hardship analysis is case-specific, requiring a court to look to “both the fact as well as the magnitude of the alleged undue hardship,” though it is “not a difficult threshold to pass.” Id. (quoting Webb, 562 F.3d at 260). Groff’s proposed accommodation of being exempted from Sunday work would cause an undue hardship. Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale at both the Holtwood Post Office and the Lancaster Annex hub. The Holtwood Post Office to which Groff was assigned had only a postmaster and three RCAs (including Groff) available for Sunday deliveries. Because Groff would not work on Sundays, only three individuals remained who could work on Sundays during the peak season. After the one RCA who covered for Groff was injured, only the Holtwood Postmaster and the remaining RCA were available to work the Sunday shift. This placed a great strain on the Holtwood Post Office personnel and even resulted in the Postmaster delivering mail on some Sundays. Because exempting Groff from Sunday work caused undue hardship, USPS did not violate Title VII by declining to grant his accommodation.

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]



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