Religious accommodation need not be employee’s preferred accommodation

Working on the Sabbath

By Phil Bruce

Just as employers have a legal duty to reasonably accommodate employees’ disabilities, they also have an obligation to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices. Employers often struggle with determining what is reasonable, particularly when the employee requests an accommodation different than what the employer has offered. Recently, the Tenth Circuit clarified that a religious accommodation can be reasonable even if it is not the employee’s preferred accommodation and has a monetary cost to the employee.

The case: Christmon v. B&B Airparts, Inc.

Jerome Christmon was a Hebrew Israelite whose employer, B&B Airparts, Inc., required all employees to work mandatory overtime on Saturdays. But Christmon’s religious practice, which regarded Saturday as the Sabbath, prevented him from working on Saturdays. He requested an accommodation: to work overtime on Sundays instead of Saturdays.

B&B, however, did not grant his requested overtime. Instead, B&B told him that he would need to request time off on Saturdays. Christmon never requested time off and, instead, stopped showing up for work on Saturdays.  The company never took any disciplinary action against him for failing to request time off and missing Saturday shifts, thus effectively giving him the accommodation of not requiring that he work mandatory overtime on Saturdays. This did not satisfy Christmon, who claimed he lost out the opportunity for overtime pay. B&B ultimately terminated Christmon for unrelated reasons, and he filed suit, alleging that B&B violated Title VII by refusing to provide a reasonable religious accommodation.

The court’s decision

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, agreeing with the district court, held that B&B offered a reasonable religious accommodation and did not violate Title VII by refusing to offer makeup overtime on Sundays. In coming to this decision, the court cited several older cases where courts held it was a reasonable religious accommodation to offer unpaid leave. It then took the next logical step, holding that an employer does not need to offer makeup overtime to an employee who misses work due to religious practices. In short, B&B’s not disciplining Christmon for missing mandatory overtime on Saturdays was a sufficient accommodation to the employee’s religious needs.

In support of his argument, Christmon cited multiple consent decrees from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These decrees were essentially settlement agreements the EEOC negotiated in allegedly similar circumstances. Interestingly, the court disregarded these examples as lacking any persuasive authority or legal analysis. Nonetheless, it appears the court has taken a position that is contrary to the EEOC’s approach, when the court decided that providing makeup overtime to Christmon was not a reasonable accommodation.

The takeaway

As always, employers should take great care when they are approached with a request for a religious accommodation. The court’s decision in this case bolsters the rule that a reasonable accommodation does not have to be the one the employee requests. In fact, employers are now on solid footing that they are not required to give a requested accommodation to an employee, even if it means the employee may tangentially result in a monetary cost to the employee.

Employers should be careful to not push this decision too far, though, as they could still face potential liability if they affirmatively seek to impose a monetary penalty on employees for exercising their religious practices. For example, if B&B had required Christmon to take vacation leave on his Sabbath, then this case may have turned out differently. Or, had B&B told Christmon that he was categorically excluded from any overtime opportunities regardless of the days worked (i.e., over 40 hours Monday through Friday) because of his inability to work mandatory overtime, it could have faced a retaliation claim.

The bottom line is that employers still need to analyze a requested accommodation on a case-by-case basis but are not limited to only providing the accommodation the employee requests.

  • Christmon v. B & B Airparts, Inc., Case No. 17-3209 (10th Cir. 5/24/18)