On June 29, 2023, in a unanimous opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated decision in Groff v. DeJoy Postmaster General, clarifying an employer’s obligations to accommodate employees’ religious practices. Specifically, the Court revisited and addressed the meaning of “undue hardship,” holding that Title VII requires an employer who seeks to deny a religious accommodation on the grounds of “undue hardship” must show that the accommodation would result in “substantial increased cost in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

In its decision, the Court rejected a widely adopted and employer friendly interpretation of “undue hardship,” which only required employers to show more than a de minimis cost or hardship.

In Groff, a former U.S. Postal Service mail carrier was unwilling to work Sundays because of his religious practice. Because USPS could not find other carriers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts, USPS declined his accommodation, stating that the requested accommodation would cause an undue hardship for USPS. Subsequently, Groff sued USPS, alleging that it was not an undue hardship to accommodate his Sunday Sabbath.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed on the grounds that exempting Groff from working Sundays would not only burden other USPS employees, but would disrupt the workplace, workflow, diminish morale, and ultimately damage USPS’s operations.

Analyzing the “undue hardship,” the Supreme Court reasoned, that “hardship” is something that is difficult or hard to bear and that “undue,” means an excessive or at an unjustifiable level. Accordingly, the Court dictated that “[w]hen ‘undue hardship’ is understood in this way, it means something very different from…is merely [a] more than de minimis” burden. Consequently, the Supreme Court concluded that undue hardship exists when an employer’s burden is “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”

Notably, the Court did not specify what facts or burdens would meet this new test. Instead, the Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals to apply this new legal standard because the lower court had failed to properly consider other possible accommodations, “including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.” By doing so, the Supreme Court likely set up years of legal battles and additional lower court opinions attempting to apply this new standard to each act of accommodation and hardship fact patterns that come along.

In the meantime, an employer still has an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice, without an identifiable undue hardship — a standard that will now require that an employer show a substantial cost or burden in the overall context of that employer’s particular business. Employers seeking to manage risk associated with religious accommodation requests — or those facing Title VII accommodation actions — should contact counsel for guidance.

The author thanks summer law clerk Victoria Carmon for her assistance.


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