In Brown v. F.L. Roberts & Co., Inc., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) vacated a trial court’s grant of summary judgment to an employer in a religious discrimination case, ruling that the employee’s request for an exemption from the company’s grooming policy did not constitute an undue hardship as a matter of law. In vacating this decision, the SJC chose not to follow the First Circuit’s decision in Cloutier v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, which held that employers were not obligated to provide a complete exemption from a grooming policy because it would prohibit the employer from controlling its public image and therefore constituted an undue hardship.
Bobby Brown, a practicing Rastafarian, worked as a technician in both the lower and upper bays of a Jiffy Lube service station. When Jiffy Lube initiated a new grooming policy in 2001, Brown informed his manager and assistant manager that he could not comply with the policy because his religion does not allow him to shave his face or cut his hair. Although Brown wished to continue his duties in the upper bay area where he interacted with customers, Jiffy Lube relegated him to the lower bay where he had no formal customer contact and less pleasant working conditions. In 2006, Brown brought a claim under Massachusetts General Laws ch. 151B (Chapter 151B) against the owner company of Jiffy Lube, alleging that its grooming policy was discriminatory.
The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and the Massachusetts Superior Court found in favor of the employer. The trial court relied on the Cloutier decision to find that an exemption from the grooming policy would constitute an undue hardship for Jiffy Lube because it had a right to control its public image.
On appeal, the SJC reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that when Brown made it clear that he was unable to comply with the policy for religious reasons, Jiffy Lube was obligated to engage in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation for him. The Court further held that an exemption from a grooming policy could never amount to an undue hardship as a matter of law, and reaffirmed that once an employee has made the required showing under Chapter 151B, the employer must show that any reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship.
This decision demonstrates that despite the “public image” defense adopted in Cloutier, an employee’s request for an exemption from a grooming policy does not relieve the employer of its obligation to engage in the interactive process and attempt to provide a reasonable accommodation. The SJC opined that it feared the misuse of the “public image” defense as an excuse for imposing discriminatory grooming policies on employees under the guise of “customer preference.” Therefore, employers should be cognizant that rigid application of a grooming policy may lead to liability under Chapter 151B.