The recently concluded Supreme Court session brought a lot of headlines in several important areas. As is usually the case, smaller, less heralded decisions could also have a major impact on everyday Americans. For employers, two cases in particular could affect their day-to-day operations.
Religious Practices & Employment Law
In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (575 U.S. ___ (2015)) the Court held that in order for an applicant to prevail in a disparate-treatment claim, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they need only show that the need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision not to hire. They need not show that the employer actually knew of the need for an accommodation.
Abercrombie refused to hire Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, because the headscarf that she wore pursuant to her religious obligations conflicted with Abercrombie’s employee dress policy. Abercrombie’s policy was for applicants to contact their Human Resources department whenever a question about the dress code arose; Ms. Elauf did not ask about the policy. The Court held that the applicant does not have to make a specific request for an accommodation for religious need, even if the request was dictated by policy, and that proof of “actual knowledge” of the religious need isn’t needed for an accommodation. Since Title VII prohibits certain motives, regardless of employer knowledge, the applicant need only show the need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision not to hire. The Court also held that Title VII does not demand mere neutrality but instead it creates an affirmative duty to accommodate religious practices.
Pregnancy & Employment Law
In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (575 U.S. ___ (2015)) a UPS driver became pregnant after requesting, and receiving, a leave for in vitro fertilization. Her doctor instructed her not to lift heavy objects, which she had to do for her employment, and as a result she requested an accommodation from UPS, which was denied. Ultimately, she lost her job and health insurance and was only re-hired after she gave birth.
The Court held that requiring employers to offer the same accommodations, regardless other factors, was too broad an interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. However, the Court held that a plaintiff could show that she faced disparate treatment under the framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green. Under the McDonnell Douglas v. Green framework, an employee may make out a prima facie case by showing 1) she belongs to a protected class; 2) she sought an accommodation; 3) the employer did not accommodate her; and 4) the employer did accommodate others similarly situated employees. The employer may then seek to justify the refusal with “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons. Here, the Court held that the employee could create a “genuine issue of material fact” by showing that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. The Court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for additional analysis.