On November 8, 2012, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Christian employee who objected to working on Sundays because it conflicted with her church attendance lacked a religious discrimination claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because her employer offered her a reasonable accommodation of working a different shift. Porter v. City of Chicago, No. 11-2006 (7th Cir. Nov. 8, 2012). (The Seventh Circuit is the federal appellate court that entertains appeals from federal cases originating in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.)
Porter’s Accommodation Request
Latice Porter had been employed by the City of Chicago (the City) in the Field Services Section (FSS) of the Records Services Division of the Chicago Police Department since 1991. The FSS received and responded to information requests from police personnel and other law enforcement agencies. Since January 2001, Porter had been a Senior Data Entry Specialist and had been most recently assigned to the “auto desk” where employees process information in various electronic databases about towed, stolen, repossessed, or recovered vehicles.
The FSS operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is divided into three shifts or “watches.” FSS employees also were assigned to groups for days off, with certain employees assigned to Fridays and Saturdays off while others were assigned to Saturdays and Sundays off.
Porter identified herself as a Christian and stated that she attended church services, bible studies, and prayer services at the Apostolic Church of God. Sunday church services were held at 9:00 a.m., 11:45 a.m., and sometimes 4:00 p.m. At times, Porter also attended services on Friday nights, Wednesday night bible studies, and prayer services on Tuesdays.
In 2005, Porter was assigned Sundays and Mondays as her days off. In October 2005, Porter took a medical leave due to a car accident and pregnancy complications. Following her return from leave, the City assigned her to the Friday/Saturday days-off group due to “operational needs” and to “balance the workforce” because there were more employees in the Sunday/Monday days-off group than there were in the Friday/Saturday group.
After receiving her assignment, Porter requested that the City reassign her to the Sunday/Monday days-off group because of her church involvement. She submitted a Request for Change of Job Assignment Form asking for a change to the Sunday/Monday days-off group.
The City advised Porter that her request would be accommodated when an opening became available in the Sunday/Monday days-off group. It also sought volunteers to switch days off with Porter, but no one volunteered. Finally, the City also suggested to Porter the option of going to the second “watch” from 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. on Sundays. Porter did not follow up with the City about this option.
Between the time when Porter returned to the FSS on July 16, 2006, and November 12, 2006, Porter was absent on some or all of 34 days, 16 of which were on Sundays. On November 14, 2006, Porter requested medical leave and did not return to the FSS.
Porter filed suit alleging that the City violated Title VII by, among other actions, failing to accommodate her religious practices. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the City, and Porter appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
Was Porter’s Religious Practice Reasonably Accommodated?
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reiterated that the reasonable accommodation requirement under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is meant “to assure the individual additional opportunities to observe religious practices, but it [does] not impose a duty on the employer to accommodate at all costs.” It also reiterated that a reasonable accommodation under Title VII is “one that ‘eliminates the conflict between employment requirements and religious practices.’” Thus, when an employer offers an alternative that “reasonably accommodates the employee’s religious needs . . . ‘the statutory inquiry is at an end [.]’”
As to Porter’s claim, the court concluded that the City reasonably accommodated Porter’s religious practice by suggesting a change to a later watch. Because Porter sought to attend church services on Sunday mornings, the court stated, the “change in Porter’s schedule would have eliminated the conflict between her work schedule and her religious practice, and there is no evidence that this change would have impacted Porter’s pay or benefits in any way.”
In dealing with Porter’s claim that she did not want to work the later watch, the court responded that “it is well settled that ‘Title VII . . . requires only reasonable accommodation, not satisfaction of an employee’s every desire.’” Thus, the fact that Porter simply did not want to work the later watch did not make the proposed accommodation unreasonable.
Porter also claimed that the City’s mere suggestion of the option of working a later watch was not sufficient to meet the City’s reasonable accommodation burden under Title VII. In rejecting this argument, the court acknowledged that it has encouraged “bilateral cooperation” between the employee and employer and recognized that employers must engage in a dialogue with an employee seeking accommodation. It further elaborated, however, that it has not demanded “the hand-holding Porter argues was lacking here.” Because the court could not find fault with the City for failing to take further steps to change Porter’s watch, it concluded that the City discharged its obligation under Title VII by offering Porter an accommodation that would have eliminated the conflict between her work schedule and her religious practice of attending church services on Sunday mornings.
Importance of the “Bilateral Dialogue” Under Title VII
Like the “interactive process” required of employers and employees for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Seventh Circuit encourages a “bilateral dialogue” between employer and employee for religious accommodations under Title VII. As the Porter case re-emphasizes, however, the employer need not provide the accommodation the employee desires or which is most beneficial to the employee. Rather, the goal for an employer must always be to provide a reasonable accommodation that eliminates a conflict between employment requirements and the employee’s religious practices.
Brian L. McDermott is a shareholder in the Indianapolis, Indiana office of Ogletree Deakins.