Supreme Court Rules Actual Knowledge of a Need for Accommodation is Not Required for an Employer to be Held Liable for Religious Discrimination

Paula Lopez, June 5, 2015.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores,  Inc., reversing the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision holding that Abercrombie could not be held liable on a religious discrimination claim for failure to accommodate.  In an 8-1 decision reversing a decision of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that Title VII requires employers to make efforts to accommodate an applicant or employee’s “religious observance and practice” in employment even in circumstances where the applicant or employee does not expressly request an accommodation if the employer has reason to know that such an accommodation is needed.

The Abercrombie case originated 7 years ago when Samantha Elauf, a 17 year-old applied for a sales floor position with an Abercrombie store in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  At the time, Abercrombie had a “Look Policy” in place that detailed what its sales floor people, referred to as “sales models,” could wear. The policy prohibited the wearing of “caps.”  Ms. Elauf, who is Muslim and wore a headscarf to the interview, was interviewed by Heather Cooke, the Assistant Manager, and received high ratings in all aspects of her interview evaluation.  Her ratings qualified her to be hired.  At the end of her interview, Ms. Cooke told Ms. Elauf that she would call her in a few days about orientation.  Ms. Elauf’s religion, her headscarf, or the company’s “Look Policy” were never discussed during the interview.

Following the interview, Ms. Cooke wanted to hire Ms. Elauf but was concerned that her headscarf conflicted with Abercrombie’s “Look Policy.”  Ms. Cooke eventually spoke to the District Manager to get guidance on whether she could hire Ms. Elauf. In speaking with the District Manager, Ms. Cooke expressed her belief that Ms. Elauf was Muslim and wore the headscarf as part of her religious beliefs. The District Manager told Ms. Cooke that the headscarf violated the company’s “Look Policy” and directed her not to hire Ms. Elauf.   When Ms. Elauf did not hear back from Abercrombie she asked a her friend who worked at the store what happened and was told that she was not hired because management said her headscarf violated company policy.  Ms. Elauf filed a claim with the EEOC, who then filed a Title VII lawsuit against Abercrombie. The district court ruled in favor of the EEOC, granting it summary judgment on liability and after a trial on damages, awarded Ms. Elauf $20,000.00.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision, placing the burden on the Plaintiff to inform the employer that she has a religious belief or practice that conflicts with the employer’s policy and needs an accommodation. Therefore, because Ms. Elauf never told Abercrombie that she was Muslim and wore the headscarf because of her religion and would need an accommodation, the employer could not be held liable for intentional discrimination.

In reviewing the Tenth Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court considered the issue of whether Title VII’s prohibition that employers cannot “refus[e] to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without an undue hardship” applies only when an applicant has informed the employer of her need for an accommodation.

The Supreme Court’s decision outright rejected the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning and Abercrombie’s argument that a Title VII plaintiff cannot prevail on a religious discrimination claim if she cannot show that the employer had “actual knowledge” of the individual’s need for an accommodation. Instead, the Court held that an applicant only needs to show that the need for an accommodation was “a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” The Court went on to explain that “motive” and “knowledge” are separate concepts, stating that an employer who has knowledge about the need for an accommodation would not be liable under Title VII for refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding the accommodation was not a motivating factor in the decision.  However, an employer who does not have actual notice of the need for an accommodation based on the applicant’s religious beliefs but suspects that such an accommodation is needed will be liable if avoiding the accommodation is a motivating factor.  The facts in this case showed that Abercrombie refused to hire Ms. Elauf because she wore a headscarf even though it had reason to know that she wore the headscarf because of her religious beliefs.

The Court also rejected Abercrombie’s argument that it cannot be held liable for intentional discrimination because it was merely applying a neutral no-caps policy.  In doing so, the Supreme Court makes it clear that Title VII requires employers to make accommodations to otherwise neutral-policies when such an accommodation is based on an applicant’s religious practice and/or belief.  It is not sufficient to apply a neutral policy across the board; religious accommodations that do not impose an undue hardship are to be given preferential treatment.

The Supreme Court’s ruling makes it clear that employers cannot avoid liability under Title VII by sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to religious accommodations.  Instead, employers who suspect that an applicant’s religious practice or belief may conflict with an existing policy have a duty to engage in a dialogue about whether an accommodation is needed.  A good practice would be to inform the applicant about the employer’s policy and find out whether the applicant can comply with the policy.  This would open the door to a discussion about any needed accommodations without bringing up the individual’s religion.


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