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In a Wrongful Termination Case, When Do Religious Accommodations Move From Reasonable to Burdensome to a Defendant Employer?

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit handled this tough decision impacting some Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tabura v. Kellogg USA, No. 15-4135 (10th Cir. 2018). Plaintiffs Richard Tabura and Guadalupe Diaz (“Plaintiffs”) are Seventh Day Adventists who honor the Sabbath by refraining from work each week from Friday at sundown through sundown Saturday. That religious practice conflicted with their job schedules at a food production plant operated by Defendant Kellogg USA, Inc. (“Kellogg”). Eventually Kellogg terminated each Plaintiff for not working their Saturday shifts. Plaintiffs allege that in doing so, Kellogg violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to accommodate their Sabbath observance. The district court denied Plaintiffs’ motion and granted Kellogg summary judgment, concluding as a matter of law both that Kellogg did reasonably accommodate Plaintiffs’ religious practice and, alternatively, that Kellogg could not further accommodate their Sabbath observance without incurring undue hardship. Kellogg appealed.

Kellogg divided the plant’s workforce into four shifts. Each shift worked twelve hours a day for two or three days, and then would have two or three days off. Each of the four shifts had to work every other Saturday, or twenty-six Saturdays each year. Plaintiffs informed Kellogg that they could not work on Saturdays because it was their Sabbath. Kellogg permitted Plaintiffs to avoid these conflicts by using paid vacation and sick/personal time and arranging to swap shifts with other employees

Both Plaintiffs earned between 160 and 200 hours of paid vacation every year, but even using that only to make up for the work that would be missed to observe the Sabbath was not enough. They both had to try to find co-workers to swap shifts with. Neither was able to swap enough or use enough vacation time to cover the 26 mandatory Saturday shifts. They were both terminated.

Plaintiffs sued Kellogg under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e through 2000e-17, asserting three claims for relief: 1) disparate treatment based on religion; 2) failure to accommodate Plaintiffs’ Sabbath observance; and 3) retaliation. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court denied Plaintiffs’ motion and granted Kellogg summary judgment on each of these three claims. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Title VII makes it unlawful…for an employer…to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s…religion. The questions presented here, then, are whether Kellogg reasonably accommodated Plaintiffs’ religious practice of not working on their Sabbath and, if not, whether Kellogg could have done so without undue hardship to its business.

The burden then shifted to Kellogg to rebut an element of Plaintiffs’ prima facie claims, to show that it provided a reasonable accommodation for Plaintiffs’ religious practice, or to show that it could not offer a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship.

To be reasonable, an accommodation need not provide a “total” accommodation; that is, Kellogg is not required to guarantee Plaintiffs will never be scheduled for a Saturday shift, nor is Kellogg required to provide an accommodation that spares the employee any cost whatsoever.

So, did Kellogg reasonably accommodate Plaintiffs’ conflict between observing the Sabbath and their work schedules. Kellogg sought to accommodate Plaintiffs’ Sabbath observance through a combination of allowing them to use their vacation and other paid time off, as well as permitting Plaintiffs to swap shifts with other employees.

Whether Kellogg reasonably accommodated Plaintiffs’ Sabbath observance and, if not, whether Kellogg could do so without undue hardship, must await further proceedings. This Court reverses the district court’s decision granting Kellogg summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ failure-to-accommodate claims and remands the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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  1. Peter says:
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    Jehovah’s Witnesses DO NOT observe the sabbath. Your article is in error.