Tag Archives: U.S. Supreme Court

Employer May Not Refuse to Hire Applicant Based on Suspicion of Need For Religious Accommodation

Epic2arly last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. In that case, a young Muslim woman who wore a hijab (a religious headscarf) to her interview was denied employment because the headscarf violated Abercrombie’s “look policy,” which did not allow head wear of any kind. Without discussing the policy with the applicant, Abercrombie simply denied her employment.  (For more about the facts of this case, see our previous post, How Explicit Must a Request for Religious Accommodation Be?)

The Supreme Court ultimately held that Abercrombie engaged in religious discrimination by refusing to hire the applicant, Samantha Elauf. In doing so, the court rejected Abercrombie’s argument that it didn’t actually know that Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons. The Court held that actual knowledge is not a requirement for religious discrimination under Title VII. It was enough that Abercrombie suspected that Elauf would need an accommodation and that this was the motivation behind its refusal to hire her.

The Court’s holding suggests that Abercrombie should have notified Elauf about the “look policy” during the application process and explored possible accommodations with her. The result makes practical sense. How would Elauf have known that she needed an accommodation if she wasn’t aware of the company’s “look policy”?

The takeaway from this decision is that employers need to consider offering religious accommodation to employees, even if the employees don’t specifically request it. When an employer has reason to suspect that an employee may need an accommodation, it should broach the topic with the employee. However, employers acting on such suspicions must be careful not to engage in stereotyping that could lead to discrimination claims.

The best approach is to stick to objective facts and company policy. For example, it could lead to trouble to ask an applicant, “Do you wear a headscarf because you are Muslim?” Instead, simply inform the applicant of the company’s established policy that head wear of any kind is not allowed, and then ask if that would present any issues for the applicant. This puts the ball in the employee’s court and gives her the opportunity to request a religious accommodation if she needs one. (For more information on religious accommodation, see our Religious Discrimination page.)

How Explicit Must a Request for Religious Accommodation Be?

AUS Supreme Courtbercrombie & Fitch is the subject of a religious discrimination lawsuit, after refusing to hire a young Muslim woman who wore a hijab – a religious headscarf – to her interview. In 2008, 17-year-old Samantha Elauf applied for a sales job with the famous retailer at one of its locations in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The store manager thought that Elauf was a good candidate for the position, but wasn’t sure if she could work for the store wearing the hijab. The store manager asked the district manager if a Muslim applicant could wear a hijab at work. The district manager replied that the store could not make any exceptions to its strict “look policy,” which did not permit headwear of any kind. Abercrombie did not discuss the policy with Elauf before rejecting her. The case has made its way up to the United States Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments this Wednesday.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it’s clear that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on their religious beliefs, unless it would create an undue hardship (for more information, see our article on religious accommodation in the workplace). In general, the employee must notify the employer of a need for accommodation before the employer is required to act. But what if the employer knows of the need for accommodation, but the information wasn’t explicitly provided by the employee?

That’s the question that is at the center of this dispute. According to Abercrombie, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the burden is on the applicant to request an accommodation for his or her religious beliefs. Employers are not expected to be mind-readers, and what’s more, employers are not allowed to ask employees about their religious beliefs in interviews.

However, according to EEOC, Abercrombie store managers knew that Elauf wore the hijab for religious reasons, which imposed a duty on Abercrombie to start a discussion about reasonable accommodation. At the very least, Abercrombie should have informed Elauf of the dress code. After all, how would Elauf know to request an accommodation if she was unaware that  headwear was prohibited by company policy?

The Supreme Court’s decision could provide some much needed clarification on just how far employees must go to request religious accommodations. The Court is scheduled to issue a decision in late spring or early summer.

U.S. Supreme Court Considers Pregnant Employees’ Rights to Accommodation

US Supreme CourtIn 2006, a female United Parcel Service (UPS) driver named Peggy Young became pregnant with her first child. On her doctor’s orders, she was not to lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Because Peggy’s shifts usually involved delivering letters and small packages, it didn’t seem like the restriction would have a huge impact on her job. But when Peggy told her supervisor about the 20-pound restriction, she was told that heavy lifting was an essential part of her job and that she couldn’t be accommodated. Peggy was immediately placed on unpaid leave and lost her medical benefits for the remainder of her pregnancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday, December 3, as to whether UPS’s failure to accommodate Young was a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978. The PDA is a federal law that prohibits employers of a certain size (those with 15 or more employees) from discriminating against pregnant employees. However, unlike other federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the PDA does not impose an affirmative duty on employers to accommodate pregnant employees. The PDA requires only that employers treat pregnant employees the same as employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

This quoted text from the PDA is what’s largely at issue in the Young v. UPS case. According to Young, UPS was obligated to treat her in the same manner that it treated other employees who were temporarily unable to perform certain duties, such as heavy lifting. UPS routinely offered light-duty work to those who suffered on-the-job injuries or who qualified as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Pregnancy does not qualify as a disability under the ADA). By contrast, UPS argued that its policy was pregnancy-neutral, which is all that the PDA requires. UPS’s policy did not single out pregnant women for less favorable treatment, but it also didn’t single out pregnant women for more favorable treatment. Two lower federal courts in Maryland agreed with UPS.

In recent years, several states have stepped in to offer additional protections to pregnant employees, including the right to light-duty assignments. In response to this increasing trend to accommodate pregnant employees, private employers have been more willing to follow suit, even if they aren’t required to by law. In fact, UPS recently announced that beginning January 1, 2015, it will institute a new policy that allows pregnant women to be reassigned to light-duty work.

Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision could have a significant impact on pregnant employees nationwide. If the court sides with Young, all employers subject to the PDA will be required to offer light-duty assignments to pregnant women if those assignments are available to non-pregnant employees. The Court’s decision is scheduled to come out sometime next year.

Nolo’s U.S. Supreme Court Center is Now in Session

For centuries, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have shaped everything from Congress’s powers to individual rights, and almost every legal issue in between. Some would even argue that one Supreme Court decision effectively elected a President. Now, Nolo is happy to announce the launch of the U.S. Supreme Court Center, your one-stop shop for full-text decisions from the nation’s top court. Every one of them is free and at your fingertips, from 1791 all the way through the current term.

You can browse Nolo’s new U.S. Supreme Court Center by year or by volume, or just check out the most recent decisions from the High Court — on the day they’re handed down no less.

All rise! Check out Nolo’s new U.S. Supreme Court Center now!

Here are a few cases that may ring a bell — just a small sample of what the new U.S. Supreme Court Center has to offer:

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954) – This landmark civil rights decision made sure that the days of “separate but equal” were numbered.
  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – You may not know the case, but you know the police drill it spawned: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you…”
  • Roe v. Wade (1973) – Everyone knows the decision is the dividing line on abortion rights, but how much controversy can be found in the opinion itself?
  • Bush v. Gore (2000) – Was it judicious jurisprudence or pure politics in the wake of the 2000 Presidential election? You be the judge.