Fourth Circuit Upholds Employer-Favorable Religious Discrimination Decision

by Poyner Spruill LLP

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of an employer that was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for religious discrimination. In EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, Grading, Paving, and Utilities, Inc., No. 11-1897, the EEOC sued the company for failing to accommodate a request to not work Saturdays made by an employee who alleged he followed the Hebrew Israelite faith. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled the company did not violate its Title VII obligations and granted summary judgment for the employer. The Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the ruling.

Thompson Contracting provided grading, paving, and utility services for transportation projects in eastern North Carolina. It normally operated Monday through Friday, but it sometimes needed its workers to work Saturdays to make up for weather and other project delays. The company normally had eight vehicles whose drivers required a commercial driver’s license, including dump trucks. The company frequently used independent contractor dump trucks for large projects.

Banayah Yisrael was employed as a dump truck driver and objected to working Saturdays because that was his religious Sabbath. Mr. Yisrael was asked to work Saturdays on several occasions. On the first occasion, all of the company’s employee dump truck drivers were scheduled to work Saturday, but no independent contractors were used. Mr. Yisrael did not come to work but was not disciplined. Several weeks later, Mr. Yisrael was again instructed to work Saturday, but he refused. On this occasion, all other dump truck driver employees worked Saturday, and the company also used 13 independent contractor drivers. Mr. Yisrael did not come to work, but he was written up for his absence and told the next infraction would result in termination.

On Friday, February 11, 2005, Mr. Yisrael was asked to work the following Saturday. All employee drivers other than Mr. Yisrael worked Saturday, and the company also used 12 independent contractor drivers. Mr. Yisrael failed to show up for work, and, anticipating his firing, filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination the following Monday. Thompson Contracting terminated his employment for failing to come to work as scheduled. After the conclusion of the EEOC Charge process, the EEOC sued Thompson Contracting for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for Mr. Yisrael’s religious beliefs.

The EEOC proposed three possible accommodations Thompson Contracting could have made. The District Court rejected all three as placing an undue burden on the company, and the Court of Appeals agreed. First, the EEOC argued Thompson Contracting could operate without Yisrael on Saturdays. The court rejected this argument because if Yisrael was not at work the company would be forced to use independent contractors, make other employees do his work, or not have the work done at all. The EEOC next argued Thompson Contracting should have provided substitute drivers to cover for Yisrael’s absences. The court held that hiring a pool of substitute drivers or incurring the costs to train existing employees to drive dump trucks was an undue burden. Finally, Thompson Contracting was not required to offer Yisrael a transfer to a different position because it reasonably believed he would refuse any such transfer option.

The EEOC v. Thompson Contracting case is an important win for employers. It clarifies that an employee’s right to avoid working on his or her Sabbath is not absolute, and an employer can demand such work when any possible accommodation would pose an undue burden on the employer. The case also provides specific examples of the types of accommodations that may not be reasonable depending on the facts of each case. Employers faced with religious accommodation requests should consult with employment counsel to determine if the requested accommodations present an undue burden and need not be made.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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