Today the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that had previously held that Abercrombie could not be held liable for not accommodating an applicant who wore a head scarf to her interview but never mentioned her Muslim faith. The Tenth Circuit had accepted Abercrombie’s argument that the mere fact that she wore the hijab to the interview did not mean it was aware that she needed an accommodation of Abercrombie’s “Look Policy.”
The Tenth Circuit had held that where an accommodation is requested for religious reasons, an employer must not only be aware of the need for an accommodation but also that it was due to a particular religious faith.
In today’s decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court noted that knowledge of the need for an accommodation is not necessary but simply must demonstrate that an applicant’s need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. This may seem confusing without reading the opinion in full.
I mean, how can an accommodation be a motivating factor if the employer did not know of the need for an accommodation?
Once you dig into the Court’s reasoning, the decision is actually more common sense than it appears on its face. In short, whether an employee knows of a need for accommodation or simply assumes that one might be necessary, if the desire to avoid accommodating that practice is a motivating factor in not hiring the applicant, then that is a violation of Title VII.
To understand the Court’s decision, a brief review of the facts is helpful. Samantha Elauf applied for a position with Abercrombie. At the interview, Ms. Elauf wore a head scarf. There was no discussion during the interview about the head scarf or whether she wore it for religious reasons. After the interview, the manager who interviewed her, Heather Cooke, was concerned that the head scarf violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” which prohibited the wearing of caps. When Ms. Cooke consulted with the District Manager, she advised that she thought that Ms. Elauf wore the head scarf for religious reasons. The District Manager advised that the head scarf would conflict with the Look Policy and Ms. Elauf was then rejected for the position.
In its analysis the Supreme Court noted that the disparate treatment provision of Title VII forbids employers from failing to hire an applicant because of religion. Thus, the provision prevents religion from being a motivating factor in an employer’s decision not to hire an applicant.
When viewed in this light, today’s decision is not so different from cases interpreting the disability portions of Title VII. For example, if an applicant who came into an interview for a position involving physical labor had a limp, the employer assumed because of the limp that the employee would need accommodations, and the employer did not want to create light duty positions so it rejected the applicant, it is not hard to see how this would be disability discrimination due to the assumption alone.
In this case, Abercrombie assumed (correctly) that Ms. Elauf wore the head scarf for religious reasons and as such would need an accommodation from its Look Policy. Since Abercrombie’s sole reason for not hiring her was that it did not want to create an exception to the Look Policy, Ms. Elauf could show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the decision not to hire her even though she had never specifically asked for an accommodation.
Today’s decision is not so broad that it means that not having knowledge of a need for an accommodation may never be a defense. If the employer has neither knowledge of nor an assumption that a religious practice requires an accommodation, an employer may still be able to raise a defense to a failure to accommodate claim. For example, if an employee comes to a manager and simply requests time off without giving a reason why, it may be possible to argue that the cannot show that the denial of the time off was on account of his or her religion.
Employers should keep this decision in the backs of their minds when evaluating such requests. If, for example, an employee is telling you that he or she cannot work any Friday after 4 pm, then a prudent employer should at least ask why before denying the request. It is possible that the employee, who is Jewish, is making the request so that he or she can observe the Sabbath, or that the employee has a second part-time job that is scheduled for every Friday evening. In the first scenario, the employer will have to evaluate whether it can reasonably accommodate the employer.
Sometimes when I counsel employers they ask why they cannot just take an ostrich approach, i.e., stick their head in the sand and not go looking for issues. The problem with that approach is that, given my example above, it is not hard to imagine that an employee would claim that the manager was aware that he or she was Jewish and thus, should have assumed that the request was related to an observance of the Sabbath. That then becomes a factual issue that is likely not going to get resolved on summary judgment.