In an order recently issued in James Robinson III, et al. v. General Motors Company, et al., Case No. 15-CV-158-Y (N.D. Tex. Oct. 21, 2015), Judge Terry R. Means of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas denied class certification to two employees of General Motors Company (“GM”), who sought to represent a nationwide class of employees seeking unpaid leave to observe religious holy days. The Court further granted GM’s motion to dismiss the class action complaint, but granted Plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint.

This case is instructive for employers defending class actions and dealing with requests for religious accommodation in the workplace.

Case Background

In 2008, two employees of GM’s Arlington, Texas facility began making requests for unpaid leave to observe their respective religious holy days. GM employee James Robinson, III (“Robinson”) alleged that he requested and received unpaid leave for religious holy days, including Saturdays. Id. at 1 – 2. GM employee Chris Scruggs (“Scruggs”) alleged that he requested but was denied unpaid leave for religious holy days until GM began granting his requests for unpaid leave in 2010. Id. at 2. The two plaintiffs are of different faith communities; Robinson a member of the Seventh Day Sabbatarian community of Tyler Sabbath Fellowship, and Scruggs a member of Messianic Jewish Beth Yeshua Congregation. Id. at 1 – 2.

Plaintiffs alleged that in 2013 GM began denying Robinson’s requests for unpaid leave to observe holy days and, once Robinson’s attorney identified Scruggs as another employee being denied similar unpaid leave, that GM resumed denial of Scruggs’ requests for unpaid leave to observe holy days. Id. Plaintiffs filed their class action complaint against GM in March 2015, alleging that GM violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by denying them the religious accommodation of unpaid leave to observe their respective holy days, despite the availability of volunteers to cover their shifts. The lawsuit demanded damages and a class-wide injunction ordering GM to allow unpaid leave on holy days, to inquire about the availability of volunteer coverage, and to seek no-cost methods of allowing religious leave. Id. at 2 – 3.

Plaintiffs sought certification of a class of “all General Motors workers within the United States subject to the 2011 UAW-GM National Agreement and who may seek unpaid leave for a holy day because of a religious belief.” Id. at 5. GM opposed the motion by arguing that the class that Plaintiffs purported to represent constituted an impermissible “hypothetical – – i.e., the possibility that GM employees may seek unpaid religious leave at some time the future,” and would require individualized inquiries not suited for class treatment. Id. (emphasis in original.)

The Court’s Decision

Finding that the Plaintiffs’ class definition “includes any GM employees who might request unpaid religious leave in the future,” the Court determined that the class was not adequately defined or ascertainable. Id. at 6. (emphasis in original.)  Noting that in this case the Court would be required to evaluate each class member’s religion, that religion’s holy days, and the days each member requested for leave, the Court determined that Plaintiffs failed to identify common questions of law or fact applicable to the class, and further failed to prove numerosity. Id. at 6, n. 1. The Court further observed that “[c]lass relief is most appropriate where the issues in the case turn on questions of law or fact ‘applicable in the same manner to each member of the class’” Id. (internal citations omitted).  The Court’s order, however, allows Plaintiffs until November 23, 2015, to file an amended complaint, and the opportunity to propose a definition of a more ascertainable class. Id. at 7.

Implications For Employers   

Religious accommodation under Title VII requires employers to engage in factual inquiries to determine if a requested accommodation is appropriate under Title VII or similar state law. For this reason, and as illustrated by the ruling in Robinson, these individualized factual inquiries precluded class-wide treatment of religious accommodation claims. Carefully articulating neutral policies and managing to consistent procedures for investigating and responding to requests for religious accommodation best enable employers both to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce, and to develop internal business records that may help avoid costly litigation.