In Lizalek v. Invivo Corp., the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for employer Invivo Corporation in a Title VII religious accommodation claim brought by an employee claiming that, as a matter of his religious faith, he had three separate identities. The Court determined that accommodating this employee’s complicated identity would have presented undue hardship for Invivo and thus, no Title VII violation occurred when Invivo terminated the employee instead.
The Lizalek Case
According to Gary Lizalek’s religious beliefs, he is three separate beings: (1) a trust created by the Social Security Administration to generate assets for the United States Government; (2) the Trustee of that trust; and (3) a “Steward [who] lends … consciousness and physical abilities to said Trust.” In October 2005, Invivo hired Lizalek (through his third identity, the Steward, who wrote Invivo to accept its job offer). Over the next month, other employees began complaining about Lisalek’s “odd and problematic behavior.” His supervisors also became concerned with Lizalek’s practice of alternating between identities in his email correspondence with Invivo’s customers. To further complicate matters, Lizalek signed his W-4, “Gary Lizalek, TTEE” – apparently invoking his trustee identity – and claimed he was exempt from tax liability. After Invivo spent a significant amount of time counseling Lizalek about these issues, the Company asked Lizalek if he would comply with Invivo’s corporate standards for professional communications. Because his answer was essentially no, Invivo terminated Lizalek’s employment.
Lizalek sued Invivo for, among other things, religious discrimination under Title VII. Lizalek contended that the Company was required to permit Lizalek’s writing style and other oddities related to his multiple identities pursuant to Invivo’s obligation under Title VII to reasonably accommodate Lizalek’s religious beliefs and practices. The district court disagreed and awarded Invivo summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision. The court determined that permitting Lizalek’s practices would cause undue hardship for Invivo because they endangered customer relationships, risked creating issues with the Internal Revenue Service, created communication difficulties for co-workers, and required the Company to spend an inordinate amount of time addressing Lizalek’s various requests. Given the undue burden that would have been imposed by accommodating Lizalek’s professed religious practices, Invivo had no obligation to accommodate them under Title VII.
Lesson for Employers
Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices. A common example of such an accommodation is providing an employee leave to observe a religious holiday. At some point, however, religious accommodation requests can become unreasonably burdensome such that they constitute an “undue hardship” which an employer need not accept.
While determining the reasonableness of an accommodation request ultimately depends on all the facts and circumstances involved, Lizalek provides useful guidance as to what kinds of accommodation requests may be unduly burdensome. As Lizalek makes clear, Title VII does not require employers to accommodate every supposed religion-related request simply because there is no direct cost in doing so. If such a request could harm customer relationships or the quality of services or products provided, it may be unduly burdensome given its impact on the employer’s overall business. Likewise, requests posing a liability threat for an employer (e.g., requests involving submission of inaccurate information to the IRS) may be unduly burdensome. If the requested accommodation would create problems with co-workers communicating or working together, or would require an extensive time investment for managers to address related concerns, they also may be unduly burdensome.
Employers must consider all religious accommodation requests. Even religious practices as bizarre as those professed by Lizalek require employers to devote potentially significant time to exploring whether reasonable accommodations are feasible. In determining whether to approve a religious accommodation request, employers should carefully analyze not only the immediate costs of the accommodation but also the impact on the company’s ability to conduct its business. Employers should also document any decision to decline a religious accommodation request with an explanation of the reasons for its decision, highlighting the negative impact on business needs, including customer relationships, potential liabilities and working relationships.