Seyfarth Synopsis: The 8th Circuit recently held that while a request for a religious accommodation may qualify as a protected activity, it is not necessarily “oppositional” so as to give rise to an opposition-clause retaliation claim under Title VII. Employers considering requests for religious accommodation should, despite this Circuit’s narrow decision, proceed carefully when considering any request.

Last year we blogged about a Minnesota District Court’s decision holding that a religious accommodation request did not constitute a protected activity under Title VII. The plaintiff appealed the ruling. On November 13, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that it could not “categorically” resolve whether a request for religious accommodation is oppositional activity for a retaliation claim, but that it would affirm the ruling for the employer on the summary judgment record in this case.

Case Background

The case is EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, Civ. No. 17-2926 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the employer hospital, claiming that the employer had retaliated against an applicant by withdrawing a conditional job offer because she asked for a scheduling accommodation for her religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist. On March 15, 2017, the employer moved for summary judgment. The employer argued that the retaliation claim failed on grounds including that a religious accommodation request did not amount to protected activity as a matter of law. The District Court agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer. The EEOC appealed, joined by amicus curiae that included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

What Did the Court Rule?

The 8th Circuit explained that it was considering an “issue of first impression,” namely whether “requests for religious accommodation are protected activity under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.” The Court held that “the issue cannot be resolved categorically,” but affirmed the district court’s ruling on the summary judgment record in this case, holding that the applicant’s simple request for a religious accommodation was not “oppositional” activity as required for Title VII retaliation claims.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee or an applicant for employment because the employee opposed an unlawful employment practice. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the EEOC was required to show that the applicant opposed an unlawful practice.

The Court relied on the Supreme Court case Crawford v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson Cty. 555 U.S. 271 (2009), emphasizing that when an employee communicates to the employer a belief that the employer had engaged in discrimination, that communication almost always constitutes the employee’s opposition to the activity.

However, in this case, the Court held that the applicant’s actions were not oppositional because “merely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation.”

While the Court generally construes the statute “broadly to cover opposition to employment actions that are not unlawful,” the plaintiff’s request for religious accommodation, by itself, “did not reflect, much less communicate, any opposition or resistance to any North Memorial employment practice.”

The Court explained that at least for religious accommodation claims, “protected activity” is not always “oppositional activity.” The Court held that in some circumstances, a religious accommodation request could form the basis for a retaliation claim, such as if an employer denied an accommodation on the grounds that it was not in fact based on a religious practice and fired the employee for making the request. However, when the employee or applicant requests a religious accommodation, and the request is denied on the grounds that it cannot reasonably be accommodated absent undue hardship, there is no basis for an opposition-clause retaliation claim. Instead, the employee or applicant’s exclusive claim is a disparate impact or disparate treatment claim under Title VII.

Finally, the Court noted that the applicant’s original EEOC charge had included a claim of disparate treatment. However, the EEOC’s enforcement action alleged only unlawful retaliation. Thus, while the Court held that the applicant’s “Title VII remedy as an unsuccessful job applicant was a disparate treatment claim under [the statute] for failure to reasonably accommodation,” there was in this case no disparate-treatment claim before the Court.

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Defending Retaliation Litigation?

In defending a retaliation claim, an employer should consider whether, in the relevant jurisdiction, there is a viable argument in its jurisdiction that a request for religious accommodation is not sufficient to establish protected activity as a matter of law. This issue was one of first impression in the Eighth Circuit, and different courts are likely to reach different conclusions. As always, it is important to keep in mind that the law governing retaliation claims under Title VII may differ from that under state and local laws.

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Managing Accommodation Requests?

Employers should follow a conservative approach in responding to religious accommodation requests. Employers would be wise to assume — until there is settled, binding law to the contrary in the relevant jurisdiction on identical facts — that a request for religious accommodation may be construed as protected activity under Title VII. As a practical matter, this means that an adverse action that an employer takes against an employee, and that post-dates a religious accommodation request from the employee, may be challenged as retaliatory by the employee and/or the EEOC. Further, an unlawful denial of a religious accommodation request can give rise to a disparate-treatment discrimination claim, even if there is no available retaliation claim.

Best Practices for Responding to Religious Accommodation Requests

Best practices for employers to respond to religious accommodation requests, and minimize the risk of retaliation liability, include:

  • Set up a policy and process for managing religious accommodation requests in a manner that is consistent and compliant with the jurisdiction’s law. Ensure that managers and HR are trained in the policy and process, and that employees know how to request a religious accommodation.
  • Review each religious accommodation request individually on a case-by-case basis. You can read our Roadmap for Responding to a Request for Religious Accommodation here. Given the complexities of this area of the law, it is wise to enlist the help of counsel who specializes in this area.
  • Ensure that any adverse actions taken against an employee, including those subsequent to a religious accommodation request, are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and that the business reasons for those adverse actions are well-documented.