Seyfarth Synopsis: Following a major victory for an airline-industry employer over the EEOC in a Title VII action regarding religious accommodations, the Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a new trial. The decision is a blueprint for employers on turning the tables on the Commission’s litigation tactics.

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After the EEOC brought an action alleging that airplane cabin cleaning company JetStream Ground Services, Inc. (“JetStream”) refused to hire five Muslim women due to their request to wear religious clothing, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled in favor of JetStream following a 14-day trial. After the EEOC moved for a new trial, in EEOC v JetStream Ground Services, Inc., Case No. 13-CV-02340 (D. Colo. Nov. 3, 2016), Judge Christine M. Arguello of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado denied the EEOC’s motion.

While this employer victory over the EEOC is encouraging, employers should nonetheless be cognizant of how employee requests to wear religious clothing at work can potentially affect their business in the Title VII litigation context.

Case Background

In a high-profile case that we have blogged about extensively here and here, five Muslim females who worked as cabin cleaners applied for and were denied cabin cleaning positions with JetStream after the company assumed the contract of the women’s former employer. Id. at 1-2. The women alleged that JetStream refused to hire them for discriminatory reasons after they requested to cover their heads with a hijab and wear long skirts for religious purposes. They also alleged that JetStream retaliated against employees and applicants who wore hijabs for engaging in protected activity in seeking a religious accommodation for their clothing and/or for complaining about discrimination.

On summary judgment, the Court ruled that the former employees had met their burden to show that hijabs that were tucked into a shirt and secured to an employee’s head presented no safety problems, thus holding that accommodating such hijabs posed no undue hardship for JetStream. Id. at 2. However, the Court also found that JetStream had presented sufficient evidence to create a disputed issue of fact as to whether it would pose an undue hardship for JetStream to permit its cabin cleaners to wear long skirts while working. After the parties disputed the type of expert testimony that would be allowed, the EEOC ultimately withdrew several claims while JetStream agreed not to use certain experts, thus leaving only the hijab accommodation claims for trial.

On April 29, 2016, after a fourteen-day jury trial, the jury found in favor of JetStream and against the EEOC. Id. at 3. Thereafter, under Rules 59 and 60, the EEOC brought a motion for a new trial, arguing it was justified for several reasons including: (1) evidence regarding safety hazards was confusing and distracting to the jury, and was designed to incite jurors’ fear and prejudice of Muslims; (2) new evidence was disclosed at trial; (3) JetStream’s counsel committed misconduct throughout the trial; (4) the Court erred in denying sanctions for the destruction of evidence; and (5) the Court erred in deciding not to allow the EEOC to use a juror questionnaire prior to trial and in denying the EEOC’s motion to strike two jurors for cause.

The Decision

The Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a new trial. Addressing the relevant legal standard under Rule 59, the Court noted that only errors that have caused substantial harm to the losing party justify a new trial, and that the verdict must stand unless it is clearly, decidedly, or overwhelmingly against the weight of the evidence. Id. at 5 (citations omitted). Regarding Rule 60, the Court opined that relief under this rule is extraordinary and may only be granted in exceptional circumstances.

First, regarding the EEOC’s argument that the introduction of safety-related evidence at trial was confusing, distracting, and prejudicial, the Court held that the EEOC’s failure to object to such statements during the jury trial weighed heavily against granting it relief. Id. at 16. Next, the Court similarly rejected the EEOC’s argument that it was prejudiced by new evidence that was introduced at trial, again noting that the EEOC missed its opportunity to object or move to strike. Id. at 19-20.

The EEOC also claimed it was entitled to a new trial due to the alleged misconduct of JetStream’s attorney, alleging that “defense counsel ‘intentionally exploited the jury’s potential stereotypes about ignorant immigrants,’” and that “defense counsel engaged in ‘personal attacks’ and ‘maligned’ Plaintiffs’ attorneys, in arguing that Plaintiffs would have been working for JetStream but that their attorneys prevented this from happening.” Id. at 24-27. The Court rejected these assertions, along with several other allegations of misconduct, again noting the EEOC failed to object or raise any of these issues at trial. Id. at 28.

Addressing the EEOC’s argument that the Court erred by not sanctioning JetStream for destroying evidence that included a list of employee recommendations made by the company who previously employed the cabin cleaners, the Court found that the EEOC’s motion provided no evidence of bad faith destruction. Id. at 30. Finally, the EEOC noting that, “anti-Muslim bias has become increasingly pervasive in American society,” the EEOC argued that the Court erred in denying its motion for a juror questionnaire and failing to strike two jurors. The Court rejected these arguments, noting that it expanded its customary voir dire procedures in lieu of issuing the questionnaire, and that various sentiments expressed by jurors did not warrant their striking. Id. at 31-40. Accordingly, the Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a new trial.

Implications For Employers

This ruling cements a major EEOC defeat. While the employer was victorious at trial here, other businesses should still be cautioned that juries are unpredictable in EEOC lawsuits Thus, employers should attempt to minimize exposure to Title VII liability through policies and practices that eradicate discrimination. With a diverse workforce that includes employees from a wide range of religions, employers must be diligent when considering the reasonableness of any accommodation sought. Given the recent aggressiveness of the EEOC, employers absolutely need to be proactive in creating and abiding by non-discriminatory policies, or risk ending up in costly litigation.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.