In its June 1, 2015, decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the United States Supreme Court said that an employer’s decisions motivated by a desire to avoid religious accommodations violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court admonished that Title VII requires even neutral employment policies to yield to an employee’s need for religious accommodations. This decision highlights the importance of regularly training employees who are responsible for hiring and managing employees. It also illustrates the need for businesses to have clearly stated policies that are easily capable of interpretation and application by frontline employees.
The case arose after a practicing Muslim applied to Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (“Abercrombie”) for a job. Under Abercrombie’s standard criteria, the job applicant was qualified for employment. The job applicant wore a headscarf, a practice she believed was consistent with her religion’s requirements. However, the assistant manager who conducted the job interview was uncertain whether the headscarf violated Abercrombie’s no “cap” policy and consulted with the store manager. The store manager also was uncertain and therefore the district manager was consulted. Although the job applicant had not requested a religious accommodation, the assistant manager told the district manager that she believed the headscarf was worn for religious reasons. The district manager determined that a headscarf (and any other headgear whether worn for religious or non-religious reasons) would violate Abercrombie’s no “cap” policy and directed that the job applicant not be hired.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued, alleging that Abercrombie’s refusal to hire violated Title VII. Title VII makes it unlawful: 1) to fail or refuse to hire someone or otherwise to discriminate against them because of the person’s religion; or 2) to limit, segregate or classify employees or job applicants in a way that deprives someone of a job opportunity or affects employment opportunities or status because of religion. After a trial, a final judgment was rendered against Abercrombie. On Abercrombie’s appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed and entered judgment for Abercrombie concluding that an employer cannot violate Title VII “until the applicant (or employee) provides the employer with actual knowledge of his need for an accommodation.” The EEOC appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court said that the Tenth Circuit was wrong. The Supreme Court observed that unlike some other antidiscrimination statutes that have a knowledge component, Title VII does not. Instead, Title VII prohibits employment decisions motivated by a desire to avoid religious accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. This includes an employee wearing a headscarf which would violate an otherwise neutral policy forbidding caps. The Tenth Circuit’s summary judgment for Abercrombie was reversed.
A judgment against an employer for violating Title VII can be damaging to its reputation. It can also be damaging to the bottom line because Title VII permits the courts to order an employer to pay a winning plaintiff’s attorney’s and expert fees.
What should you do in light of this decision? First, review your business procedures, such as employee handbooks, to ensure that they are clear and easily capable of interpretation and application by frontline employees. Even facially neutral policies should undergo thorough analysis to ensure full Title VII compliance. Second, stress to supervisors, managers and decision makers that their employment decisions cannot be motivated by a desire to avoid religious accommodations. Mock scenarios are a perfect way to ensure that supervisors, managers and decision makers have the skills for Title VII compliance.