Two written requests from an employee for unpaid leave to attend funeral rites for his father in Africa created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer received notice of the religious nature of the request for purposes of accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Right Act, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled. Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, No. 12-3820 (7th Cir. July 31, 2013). The Court accordingly reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer and allowed the case to proceed.

Background

Sikiru Adeyeye is a native of Nigeria who moved to the United States in 2008. On July 19, 2010, Adeyeye provided a written request to his employer, Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, of his need for five weeks’ unpaid leave to participate in funeral rites for his father in Africa according to his custom and tradition. Adeyeye’s request for leave included a chronology of events that would occur in Nigeria during the leave time. He also stated that if he failed to lead the burial rites, he and his family members would suffer at least spiritual death. Heartland denied the request. 

On September 15, 2010, Adeyeye provided the employer with a second request, this time for one week of his earned vacation and three weeks of unpaid leave. Adeyeye again stated that the leave was to attend the “funeral ceremony of my father in my country, Nigeria — Africa, … .” He also detailed, “…I have to be there and involved totally in this burial ceremony being the first child and the only son of the family.” Heartland again denied his request. Notwithstanding the denial, Adeyeye traveled to Nigeria for the funeral ceremony. Upon his return to work, Heartland terminated Adeyeye’s employment. 

Lawsuit

Adeyeye filed a lawsuit alleging Heartland’s denial of his leave request and his subsequent termination violated Title VII’s prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of religion. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Heartland, determining the two written leave requests did not present evidence sufficient for a jury reasonably to find Adeyeye had provided Heartland with notice of the religious character of his request. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the summary judgment ruling. 

Three-Factor Consideration

The Appeals Court noted that the statutory definition of religion in Title VII is an unusual blend in that it combines a broad substantive definition of religion with an implied duty to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices. Further, the Court noted, the U.S. Supreme Court’s United States v. Seeger held that the key inquiry in a religious accommodation case “is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” 380 U.S. 163, 165-66 (1965). The Seventh Circuit noted a genuinely held belief that involves matters of the afterlife, spirituality, or the soul, among other possibilities, qualifies as religion under Title VII. Moreover, Title VII’s protections, the Court noted, are not limited to familiar religions.

The Court described three factors to consider when determining whether a belief is in fact “religious” for purpose of Title VII: “(1) the belief necessitating the accommodation must actually be religious, (2) that the religious belief must be sincerely held, and (3) accommodation of the sincerely held belief must not impose an undue hardship.” 

The Court found the lower court determined only that Adeyeye’s requests gave his employer insufficient notice, but it never addressed his religious belief or fully considered his claim. In reversing the lower court decision, the Court of Appeals explained that an employee must give his or her employer fair notice of the need for an accommodation and the religious nature of the conflict with employment requirements. In doing so, the employee must make the request reasonably clear so as to alert the employer to the fact that the request is motivated by a religious belief. 

The Court of Appeals specifically noted that Adeyeye in his two requests for leave referenced the “funeral ceremony” and “funeral rite,” as well as the animal sacrifices and spiritual repercussions of his failure to attend. According to the Court, these references would allow a reasonable jury to find that Adeyeye gave sufficient notice of the religious nature of his request for unpaid leave. It also found that the information evidenced Adeyeye’s own personal and sincerely held religious beliefs. 

Heartland argued that summary judgment should be affirmed because any accommodation would have imposed undue hardship on it. On this issue, the Court said, the employer bears the burden of proof, so it must show, as a matter of law, that any accommodations would have imposed an undue hardship. The lower court also did not decide this issue, and the Court rejected Heartland’s argument. It stated that the issue of undue hardship depends on close attention to the specific circumstances of the job and the leave schedule the employee believes is needed.

Accordingly, the Court reversed summary judgment and remanded the case.

***

Adeyeye underscores that employers should consider carefully requests made by employees for religious accommodation. This includes accommodation requests that may appear to be unusual or unique. Once a request is properly identified as a request for a religious accommodation, the employer must determine whether granting the accommodation request would pose an undue hardship based on all of the facts and circumstances.