Case Law Update: The United States Supreme Court Clarifies “Undue Hardship” in Title VII Cases
On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174 (2023).1 In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Alito, the Court provided guidance regarding the phrase “undue hardship” under Title VII. This blog post will breakdown the opinion in Groff and discuss its implications moving forward.
In Groff, the plaintiff, Gerald Groff, “is an Evangelical Christian who believes for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest[.]”2 Groff was employed by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) as a Rural Carrier Associate, which required him to assist regular carriers with mail delivery.3 Within a few years of Groff joining USPS, the agency began delivering mail on Sundays through an agreement with Amazon.4 Ultimately, USPS informed Groff that he would have to work on Sundays.5 Groff sought and received a transfer to a different rural USPS station that at the time did not make Sunday deliveries.6 In March 2017, however, Sunday deliveries began at that station as well.7 Deliveries that would have been made by Groff had he worked on Sundays were performed by others, including the local postmaster, who typically did not deliver mail.8 Throughout 2017 and 2018, Groff continued to receive “‘progressive discipline’” for failing to work Sundays, and other employees complained about the consequences of Groff not working Sundays, including at least one employee filing a grievance related to the matter.9 He resigned in January 2019; he asserted that his termination was imminent.10
Groff filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”), asserting that USPS could have accommodated his request not to work Sundays “‘without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.’”11 The District Court (i.e., the trial court) granted summary judgment (effectively ending the case) in favor of USPS, and the appellate court (here, the Third Circuit) affirmed.12 The Third Circuit held that under controlling case law, “‘requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost” to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.’”13 The Third Circuit, and other courts, reached this conclusion based on a single line in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977).14 The Third Circuit held that “[e]xempting Groff from Sunday work . . . had ‘imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.’”15
The Supreme Court took the opportunity to clarify Hardison and held that “showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.”16 The Court emphasized that Hardison “cannot be reduced to that one phrase.”17 The Court explained that “[w]e therefore, like the parties, understand Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”18 The Court went on to state that “[w]e think it enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”19 The Court stressed that “courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.’”20 Turning to Groff’s claim, the Court left it to the lower courts to apply the clarified test and remanded the matter to the Third Circuit for further proceedings.21
The Supreme Court’s decision in Groff provides helpful guidance in claims involving “undue hardship” under Title VII. By way of example, if employee Gary requests that he be excused from working evening shifts at a warehouse because his religion prohibits working between sundown and sunup, the owner of the company, Glenn, would have to determine if he can accommodate the request without a substantial burden to his business. It may be that, given the nature of the business, Glenn would not be able to accommodate such a request. This is an issue that will undoubtedly be litigated moving forward, but Groff does provide much-needed guidance after over four decades of courts relying upon a single sentence in Hardison regarding the “undue hardship” standard.
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1 The opinion can be found on the Supreme Court’s website at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/22-174k536.pdf (last visited July 20, 2023).
2 Groff, at *1.
3 Id., at *2.
8 Id., at *2-3.
9 Id., at *3.
14 Id. The line was: “‘To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.’” Id., at * 11 (quoting Hardison, 432 U.S. at 84).
15 Id., at *3-4.
16 Id., at *15.
18 Id., at *15-16.
19 Id., at *18.
21 Id., at 21.