An employee’s request for five weeks unpaid leave to attend a funeral overseas could be a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, decided July 31, 2013.
Adeyeye claimed that he needed the time to return to Nigeria for various culturally required funeral rights. In reversing summary judgment for the employer, the court acknowledged the hardships extended absences create for employers. However, under the facts of the case, the court found no basis for such a hardship claim because Adeyeye could easily be replaced by temporary replacement workers.
The court distinguished cases holding that even de minimis cost of arranging religious leave could defeat an accommodation, noting that those cases involved a unionized workforces with collectively bargained seniority and absenteeism rules, whereas Heartland was not organized. The court strongly rejected Heartland’s argument that termination of the employee with a right of reapplication/rehire was a reasonable substitute for leave.
Although Adeyeye was a religious discrimination claim, employers should expect the EEOC and plaintiffs to cite it in all types reasonable accommodation disputes because of the court’s minimization of extended-absence hardships, its distinction between unilateral employment policies and collectively bargained rules and the clear rejection of the termination-and-rehire alternative. For now, employers should continue to document particularized hardships that would occur if a specific long term leave request were granted in order to defend their decision from later attack.