Groff v. DeJoy


When an employee requests an accommodation to a religious practice or belief, Title VII requires the employer to grant the accommodation unless it can establish the request would result in an “undue hardship.”  Based on a prior U.S. Supreme Court decision nearly 50 years ago (Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison), an employer could prove that the employee’s request would result in an undue hardship and deny the accommodation, merely by establishing that the accommodation would require an effort or cost that is “more than de minimis.”  By comparison, employers responding to requests for disability accommodations must establish the accommodation would result in a substantial cost or disruption to operations to satisfy the undue hardship defense.

In a unanimous decision issued by the Supreme Court on June 29, 2023, in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, SCOTUS revisited the standard for undue hardship in religious accommodation cases and held that an employer can only deny a religious accommodation request if it results in substantial costs in relation to its particular business.  When considering if the employer met its burden, courts must take into account all relevant factors, including the practical impact of the accommodation request in light of the employer’s size, operations, and cost.  This could include the impact on co-workers where for example, an employee requests off work on the Sabbath as an accommodation.  However, forcing other employees to work overtime to accommodate a co-worker’s scheduling request is not enough to establish an undue hardship.  Moreover, co-workers’ animosity towards a particular religion is never a proper factor to consider when establishing undue hardship.

The Court declined to go so far as to adopt the specific higher undue hardship standard applicable to disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Further, although the Court observed that the EEOC’s published guidance on religious accommodations is mostly correct, it refused to apply a blanket adoption of the EEOC’s interpretations.  The Supreme Court concluded that the undue hardship defense to religious accommodation requests must be decided on a case-by-case basis, and the specific impact on the employer’s operations. 

Although a ruling creating a higher standard was not unexpected, the Groff decision is a major change in the law on religious accommodations. Its impact will make it more difficult for employers to deny an employee’s request to be off on the Sabbath or to observe other religious practices, a common accommodation request.  The ruling may also impact pending cases where employees were terminated based on the de minimis test after refusing to get a COVID vaccination due to religious objections. Further clarification should be forthcoming as courts and the EEOC apply the new undue hardship standard in the future.   

Jeff Fuchsman