Thou Shall Accommodate: Funeral Leave as a Religious Accommodation Under Title VII

by BakerHostetler
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Requests for reasonable accommodations are commonplace for employers of qualified individuals with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But a recent case reminds employers that reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs and practices is also required, under Title VII. The case also serves as a reminder to carefully consider the circumstances of any request for a leave of absence.

Funeral Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation

When Sikiru Adeyeye’s father died in 2010 in Nigeria, Adeyeye requested five weeks of leave from his employer, Heartland Sweeteners, to travel to Nigeria to attend the funeral ceremony. He made the request in writing, and when Heartland did not respond, he wrote again. His letters stated that he was needed in Nigeria as his father’s oldest son to complete a “funeral rite according to our custom and tradition.” He referenced animal sacrifices.  He stated that the consequence of not completing these traditions would mean “death” for his father’s children. Heartland denied the request. Adeyeye went anyway and, upon returning to work, was terminated. Adeyeye sued, claiming that his request for leave was a reasonable religious accommodation under Title VII.

After the trial court granted the company summary judgment and dismissed the case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in and overturned the decision. The appeals court held that a jury, not the judge, must decide whether Heartland should have recognized the religious nature of Adeyeye’s request based on the two letters Adeyeye submitted to the company. Though Adeyeye’s letters did not reference his religion directly, the appeals court held that a reasonable jury “could certainly find that the letter’s multiple references to spiritual activities and the potential consequences in the afterlife provided sufficient notice to Heartland that Adeyeye was making a religious request.”

Among other reasons for overturning the trial court’s decision, the appeals court harshly rejected Heartland’s claim that granting the leave would have created an undue hardship on the company. The court noted that many employers “manage their work around employees’ vacations and medical leaves that may last several weeks or even longer.” Adeyeye was a material handler and packer/palletizer, a role that involved significant turnover. Heartland staffed more than one-third of these positions with temporary workers and had a “ready list of temporary workers who usually reported to Heartland within an hour of a request” to fill an immediate need.

In returning the case to the trial court for further proceedings, the appeals court made one final observation:  Heartland’s argument that allowing Adeyeye to resign with the possibility of re-hire was NOT a reasonable accommodation. “Title VII does not contemplate asking employees to sacrifice their jobs to observe their religious practices.”

The Bigger Picture

Employees are not required to use any “magic words” to request a reasonable accommodation, or any type of protected leave (e.g. FMLA). The burden ultimately falls on the employer to decipher vague and ambiguous requests and to follow up as needed. If Heartland Sweeteners had identified the issue and appropriately followed up with Adeyeye, it might not be heading back to court for trial.

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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