Supreme Court Clarifies What Constitutes an Undue Hardship Under Title VII When Evaluating a Request for a Religious Accommodation

June 30, 2023

By: Stephen B. Stern

     In Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174, 600 U.S. ____ (2023), the United States Supreme Court revisited what constitutes an “undue hardship” that would excuse an employer from providing a reasonable accommodation to an employee in connection with a religious practice under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”).  The Court concluded the de minimis cost standard applied by many lower courts was inconsistent with the requirements of Title VII and the Court’s prior decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).  The Court held that evaluating what constitutes an “undue hardship” requires a contextual inquiry involving the nature of the employer’s business that is fact-specific and it requires something more than a de minimis cost to avoid providing a reasonable accommodation.   

     In Groff, Gerald Groff (“Groff”) was an Evangelical Christian who believed that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest.  In 2012, he commenced employment with the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) as a mail carrier.  At the time he started working, his duties generally did not require Sunday work.  In 2013, however, the USPS partnered with Amazon to facilitate Sunday deliveries.  Pursuant to a memorandum of understanding, each post office during a two-month peak season would use its own carriers and staff to deliver packages on Sundays and it set forth how employees would be selected for Sunday duty.  When Groff learned he would be assigned Sunday duties on occasion, he requested and received a transfer to a different USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries, at least until 2017, when the station he worked at began making Sunday deliveries as well.  

     The USPS assigned Groff’s Sunday duties to other employees because he was unwilling to work Sundays and, at the same time, he received “progressive discipline” for failing to work Sundays.  Ultimately, in January 2019, Groff resigned from employment with the USPS.  A few months later, Groff sued the USPS under Title VII, claiming the USPS could have accommodated his religious observance of not working on Sundays “without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.”  The district court dismissed the lawsuit at summary judgment and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, finding that the Supreme Court’s decision in Hardison governed the outcome because “requiring [an] employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship” and requiring Groff’s coworkers to work in his stead on Sundays “imposed on this coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”  The Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

     The Supreme Court began its analysis by giving a lengthy historical review of Title VII and religious discrimination cases, including Hardison, which does not need to be included here.  In short, the Court noted that most lower courts unduly emphasized the de minimis standard established in Hardison when analyzing whether an accommodation constituted an undue hardship and, in doing so, they undermined other parts of the Court’s decision that referred to a “substantial” cost.  The Court further noted that its decision in Hardison “referred repeatedly to ‘substantial’ burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision.”  The Court, therefore, “understood” its decision in Hardison to mean that “undue hardship” “is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business[,]” and that analysis requires a fact-specific inquiry.  To this end, the Court held that showing “more than a de minimis cost” “does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.”

     The Court turned to the text of Title VII, which requires the establishment of an “undue hardship.”  The Court explained that a “hardship” is defined, at a minimum, as “something hard to bear” while some definitions go further and involve some level of suffering.  Regardless of which definition is used, however, a hardship in each instance is “more severe than a mere burden.”  “So even if Title VII said only that an employer need not be made to suffer a ‘hardship,’ an employer could not escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs.”  “Those costs would have to rise to the level of hardship, and adding the modifier ‘undue’ means that the requisite burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable’ level.”  The Court continued, “[w]hen ‘undue hardship’ is understood this way, it means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., something that is ‘very small or trifling.’”  To this end, “courts must apply the test [in the future] 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.’”  In addition, “courts should resolve whether a[n] [undue] hardship [in a Title VII case] would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the common-sense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”  

     The Court then addressed an accommodation’s impact on coworkers when assessing an undue hardship.  To this end, “a coworker’s dislike of ‘religious practice and expression in the workplace’ or ‘the mere fact [of] an accommodation’ is not ‘cognizable to factor into the undue hardship inquiry.’”  “An employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is ‘undue,’ and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue.’”  In addition, the Court explained that Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice, not merely assess the reasonableness of a particular potential accommodation.  In this regard, when faced with a request like Groff’s (i.e., taking time off to observe the Sabbath or other religious holiday), “it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship” and it would be necessary to consider other options, such as shift swapping.  

     The Supreme Court’s decision in Groff is significant because it seems to raise the bar to establish an undue hardship that excuses an employer from having to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practice/observance under Title VII.  Furthermore, the context-specific inquiry that courts will apply on a case-by-case basis and the requirement that the cost be "substantial in the context of [the] employer's business" may invite more litigation by employees against employers involving religious accommodation requests.  Employers will now need to revisit how they handle religious accommodation requests and reexamine what constitutes an undue hardship if they intend to deny a religious accommodation request.