June 29, 2023

Supreme Court Decides Groff v. DeJoy

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174, holding that Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs” in relation to the “conduct of its particular business.”

The case was brought by Gerald Groff, a Christian who observes the Sunday Sabbath and is therefore unable to work on that day for religious reasons. In 2012, Groff took a mail delivery job with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which did not involve Sunday work. That changed, however, after the USPS agreed to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries. Groff transferred to a rural office that did not make Sunday deliveries, but after deliveries began at that station, too, Groff still refused to work on Sundays. He faced escalating discipline and, believing he would be fired, eventually resigned.

Groff then sued the USPS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He argued that USPS could and should have accommodated his religious practices without undue hardship to the business. The district court granted summary judgment for USPS and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, believing it was bound by language in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 633 (1977), which stated that an employer could deny a religious accommodation, and had met the “undue hardship” standard, whenever the accommodation would require “more than a de minimis cost.”

The Supreme Court reversed in a unanimous decision, holding that the Third Circuit incorrectly assumed that Hardison prescribed an insufficiently low, ‘more than a de minimis cost’ standard. Writing for the Court, Justice Alito held that all tools of statutory construction — including the plain meaning of the term “undue hardship,” interpretive guidelines from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission about that term, and the use of the term in other statutes — imposed a higher standard than mere “de minimis cost.” To deny a religious accommodation, the Court wrote, an employer must show that granting a religious accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs” before denying one to an employee. Addressing Hardison, which the Court left intact, the Court understood the case to mean that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. The Court rejected any interpretation of Hardison that would mean an employer could escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs.

Because the proper standard had not been applied in the lower courts, the Court vacated the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case so that the lower courts could apply the proper standard in the first instance. In doing so, the Court instructed that lower courts “must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.”

Justice Alito delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Jackson joined.

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