On May 25, 2022, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Groff v. Dejoy, 35 F.4th 162 (3d Cir. 2022). A copy of the opinion can be found here. This case arose from a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by a postal carrier against his employer, the United States Postal Service (“USPS”).
The Facts and Procedural History
Plaintiff Gerald Groff was employed as a rural postal carrier associate (RCA) for USPS. An RCA is a noncareer employee who provides coverage for absent career employees. RCAs work “as needed,” so the job requires flexibility. At the time of Groff’s employment, there was a shortage of RCAs in his region. Working on Sunday is required for RCAs in part as a result of USPS’s contract with Amazon to deliver Amazon’s packages including on Sundays. The success of Amazon Sunday delivery was critical to USPS. As part of union negotiations, only two exceptions were recognized for Sunday work: an individual (1) who had approved leave adjacent to a Sunday or holiday, or (2) whose workweek would exceed forty hours if assigned to work on the Sunday or holiday.
Groff describes himself as an evangelical Christian who believes Sundays are meant for worship and rest. His position, however, required him to work on Sundays. Initially, to avoid Amazon Sunday deliveries, Groff obtained a transfer to a small station; however, eventually his small station also began Amazon Sunday deliveries. At that time, Groff requested that he be exempted from working on Sundays as an accommodation for his religious beliefs. Groff’s postmaster offered to adjust Groff’s schedule to permit Groff to attend religious services in the morning and report to work afterward which was an accommodation offered to others.
Eventually, USPS informed Groff that he could be excused from working on Sundays only if another worker was able to cover his shifts. Consequently, the shift swapping created resentment towards management from employees who had to work more Sundays than they should have. Additionally, finding coverage for Groff increased the workload of postmasters (supervisors) in the area who were themselves forced to deliver mail when no RCAs were available since putting off delivery until Monday would have impacted efficiency and safety. Ultimately, despite USPS’s efforts to find employees to switch shifts with Groff, USPS could not find available workers for 24 Sundays over 60 weeks. Due to the lack of coverage and Groff not working on those Sundays, he was disciplined, which led to his decision to resign from USPS.
Groff sued USPS, alleging that he was discriminated against because of his religion and that USPS failed to accommodate his religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The District Court granted USPS’s motion for summary judgment on both claims. With respect to the accommodation claim, the District Court found that USPS allowing Groff to switch shifts with other workers was a reasonable accommodation even if Groff was unhappy with it. It reasoned that “an employer does not need to wholly eliminate a conflict in order to offer an employee a reasonable accommodation.” The District Court also found that, if Groff was to be given an exemption from working on Sundays it would cause an undue hardship, because the only other RCA would have to work every Sunday without getting a break and because granting an exemption from Sunday work could violate the labor agreement with the union, among other things. Subsequently, Groff appealed.
On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision; however, it disagreed with the District Court’s reasonable accommodation definition. The Third Circuit affirmatively stated that for an accommodation to be considered reasonable, it must wholly eliminate the conflict between the employee’s job requirements and the employee’s religious beliefs. The Court also reasserted that although the accommodation must eliminate the conflict, employers are not obligated to choose any specific reasonable accommodation or choose the employee’s preferred accommodation. Concerning Groff’s case, the Court stated that the shift swapping was not reasonable because USPS was unsuccessful with finding other workers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts for 24 Sundays in a row, which led to Groff being disciplined. Nevertheless, the Third Circuit agreed with the District Court’s finding that USPS could not grant Groff an exemption from Sunday work since it would create an undue burden insofar as the exemption would directly affect his coworkers, disrupt the workflow, diminish employee morale and potentially violate the labor contract.
When considering reasonable accommodations for employees, employers must keep in mind that the religious accommodation can only be deemed reasonable if it completely “eliminates the conflict between the employee’s job requirements and religious beliefs.” For example, paid leave or use of vacation time, unpaid leave, transfers, and shift swapping, are all possible avenues to eliminate a conflict between working on a specific day and observing one’s religion on that day.
The author thanks law clerk Naomi Gulama for her assistance in drafting this client alert.