Finds Employer Met Obligation To Accommodate His Beliefs

A federal appellate court recently affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of an employee who claimed that his employer discriminated against him because of his religion in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the employer satisfied its obligation to reasonably accommodate the worker’s religious beliefs. EEOC v. Firestone Fibers & Textiles Company, No. 06-2203, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (February 11, 2008).

Factual Background

Firestone Fibers & Textiles Company employed David Wise as a float-ing laboratory technician. After working for Firestone for several years, Wise became a member of the Living Church of God. Wise’s faith prohibited him from working on his Sabbath, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, and on seven religious holidays throughout the year. Typically, these religious holidays prohibited Wise from working 20 days each year, 14 of which did not coincide with his weekly Sabbath. For several years, Wise’s religious observances did not conflict with Firestone’s attendance requirements.

In February 2002, the Firestone facilities at which Wise was employed underwent a restructuring. In accordance with the applicable collective bargaining agreement (CBA), an employee with more seniority bumped Wise from his floater position to that of a regular lab technician. Because he did not have enough seniority, he was unable to obtain a day shift position. Because the graveyard shift would have posed greater attendance problems for him, he began working the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift.

The CBA granted employees with Wise’s seniority 15 days of vacation and three floating holidays per year. Employees were allowed to swap shifts twice per quarter (for a maximum of eight times per year) and take up to 60 hours of unpaid leave annually. Employees who took more than 60 hours of unpaid leave, however, were subject to termination.

Following the restructuring, Wise used vacation days, floating holidays and unpaid leave to avoid working on his Sabbath. His supervisor also allowed Wise to work during hours that did not conflict with his Sabbath when Firestone’s work load and staffing requirements allowed.

After exhausting his allotted vacation days, floating holidays and most of his unpaid leave, Wise requested an 11-day leave of absence to observe two religious holidays. Firestone determined that previous requests for unpaid leaves of absence had been granted only for “one-time” or non-recurring events, and it denied Wise’s request. Observing his religious holidays, Wise did not report to work and exceeded his 60-hour unpaid leave limit. Firestone terminated Wise’s employment for violating the attendance policy.

The EEOC sued Firestone on Wise’s behalf, alleging that Firestone discriminated against him by failing to provide an accommodation that would allow Wise to observe his Sabbath and religious holidays without being terminated. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Fire-stone, finding that the company “had provide[d] reasonable accommodation for Wise’s religious observations in accordance with Title VII’s requirements.” The EEOC appealed this de-cision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal Analysis

Under Title VII , employers must reasonably accommodate the religious observances of its employees unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. On appeal, the EEOC argued that, to satisfy Title VII’s accommodation requirement, an employer must offer an accommodation that completely eliminates the conflict between the employee’s religion and the employer’s job requirements. The Fourth Circuit, acknowledging that other courts had reached different conclusions, rejected this position noting that it ignored the statute’s use of the word “reasonable.” If Congress had wanted to require complete accommodation, the court continued, it could have done so by using the words “totally” or “completely” or by omitting “reasonably” altogether as a modifier of the term accommodate.

The Fourth Circuit wrote: “Through various mechanisms, each significant in their own right, Firestone sought to assist Wise. These accommodations included preexisting company policies provided to all employees [e.g., the CBA’s seniority system, and 60 hours of unpaid leave] and specific accommodations tailored to Wise’s particular situation [e.g., altering Wise’s shift on Fridays].” The court concluded that these accommodations, even though they did not completely eliminate the conflict between Wise’s religion and Firestone’s work requirements, “plainly” satisfied Title VII’s reasonable accommodation requirements. Thus, the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss the suit.

Practical Impact

According to a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Charlotte, North Carolina office who represented Firestone, “the Fourth Circuit’s opinion provides some very practical guidance for employers attempting to accommodate an employee’s desire to observe the Sabbath. However, the answer may not be as clear for employers in those circuits where courts have held that, to be reasonable, the offered accommodation must completely eliminate the conflict. Employers should consult with their employment counsel when wrestling with these challenging issues.”

Note: This article was published in the March/April 2008 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

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