This Report summarizes an opinion issued on January 23 (Part I); and cases granted review on December 27, 2022, and January 13, 2023 (Part II).
Case Granted Review: Groff v. DeJoy, 22-174
Groff v. DeJoy, 22-174. This case involves Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an individual’s religious practices unless it would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977), the Court stated that the undue hardship standard is satisfied whenever the religious accommodation would require the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost.” At issue is whether (1) the Court should disapprove Hardison’s more-than-de-minimis-cost test, and (2) an employer can prove “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” by showing that the religious accommodation harms the employee’s co-workers instead of the business itself.
Petitioner Gerald Groff worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier. He is a Christian who observes a Sunday Sabbath. When USPS started delivering packages on Sundays, Groff informed his supervisor that he would not work his scheduled Sunday shifts because of his religious beliefs. USPS tried to accommodate Groff by seeking volunteers to cover his shifts or scheduling an extra employee to work on days that he was scheduled. USPS later changed that practice and started disciplining Groff when he did not report to work on Sundays and no volunteer took his place. Groff’s religious practice caused other USPS employees to work more Sundays, sometimes with increased workloads. Ultimately, Groff resigned and sued USPS for not reasonably accommodating his religious practice. The district court granted USPS’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning in part that excusing Groff from Sunday shifts would constitute an undue hardship under Hardison’s more-than-de-minimis-cost test. A divided panel of the Third Circuit affirmed. 35 F.4th 162. It agreed that under Hardison, USPS would suffer an undue hardship if it had to accommodate Groff by exempting him from Sunday shifts. The court found that excusing Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost to USPS because it imposed burdens on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale. Judge Hardiman dissented, questioning the propriety of Hardison’s more-than-de-minimis-cost test and the majority’s application of that test to the facts of the case.
Groff argues that the Court should disapprove Hardison’s more-than-de-minimis-cost test and adopt a more stringent standard for establishing undue hardship under Title VII. He contends that Hardison’s discussion of undue hardship lacks stare decisis effect because Title VII’s undue-hardship test was not at issue in Hardison. Rather, the Court was interpreting the term “undue hardship” as used in an EEOC guideline. Groff maintains that this is the Court’s first opportunity to interpret Title VII’s undue-hardship test, and that Title VII’s text, structure, history, and purpose all support the conclusion that “undue hardship” means “significant difficulty or expense” to the employer. Even if Hardison’s discussion of undue hardship is entitled to stare decisis effect, Groff submits that it should be overruled. He notes that no party in Hardison advocated for the more-than-de-minimis-cost standard and that the Court’s discussion of undue hardship was limited to two brief paragraphs at the end of the opinion. He further argues that Hardison “is the poster child for an egregiously wrong legal test that lacks even the most tenuous connection to the governing text.” More broadly, he contends that Hardison has gutted Title VII’s protections for employees’ religious practices because courts are inclined to find that any loss to an employer constitutes an undue hardship. Finally, Groff maintains that an employer cannot establish undue hardship “merely by showing that an accommodation burdens or inconveniences the plaintiff’s co-workers.” He notes that the text of the statute requires undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business, and he endorses Judge Hardiman’s dissenting view that “a burden on coworkers isn’t the same thing as a burden on the employer’s business.”
The Government does not dispute that Hardison’s more-than-de-minimis-cost test should be revisited in an appropriate case. It argues that Groff cannot prevail “under any plausible standard of ‘undue hardship.’” And the Government may offer the Court an alternative ground to affirm: USPS would have breached a union contract if it exempted Groff from Sunday shifts. The Government submits that under Hardison, a violation of a collective bargaining agreement constitutes an undue hardship. It also maintains that the Third Circuit correctly considered co-worker burdens as part of the broader question whether religious accommodation harmed USPS’s business operations.