By Paul Galligan and Samuel Sverdlov
Seyfarth Synopsis: The District Court of the Southern District of New York granted an employer’s motion for summary judgment on an employee’s failure to accommodate claims, holding that the plaintiff did not hold a bona fide religious belief, and failed to provide notice to the employer regarding his need for religious accommodation.
Requests for religious accommodations are challenging for employers because employers have limited means to determine the veracity of an employee’s religious obligations, yet risk liability for discrimination and retaliation under federal, state, and local laws if they outright refuse to accommodate an employee’s request for religious accommodation. In fact, more often than not, employers take an employee’s purported religious obligations at face value rather than asking the employee to justify their obligations. In Bob v. Madison Security Group, Inc., the District Court for the Southern District of New York granted an employer’s motion for summary judgment on a pro se Plaintiff’s claims of failure to accommodate, retaliation, and unlawful termination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).
In Bob, the plaintiff was a Muslim security guard employed by Madison Security Group (Madison). The plaintiff alleged that Madison refused to accommodate his religious beliefs – that he could not work on Fridays to observe the Sabbath. The plaintiff alleged that despite his religious needs, the employer continued to schedule the plaintiff for Friday shifts. When the plaintiff failed to report to any shifts that included hours on a Friday, his schedule was reduced and ultimately eliminated (though the employer contended that they have never formally terminated the plaintiff’s employment).
Madison denied any wrongful conduct, and moved for summary judgment on all of the plaintiff’s claims. With regard to the plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim, Madison challenged whether the plaintiff actually held a bona fide religious belief preventing him from working on Fridays, and averred that in any case, they did not have notice of the plaintiff’s need for religious accommodation.
The court granted the employer’s motion. The court was convinced that the plaintiff did not hold a bona fide religious belief, given that Madison produced records from the plaintiff’s prior employer showing that the plaintiff regularly worked 8-hour days on Fridays, and the plaintiff himself testified during deposition that he could work on Fridays, but prefers not to.
The court was also persuaded that the plaintiff never put Madison on notice that he required a religious accommodation. The plaintiff alleged that he told his interviewer that he could not work on Fridays when he applied for the job, but Madison put forth evidence that they never employed the interviewer identified by the plaintiff. Further, although the plaintiff often wrote to Madison to complain about working conditions, he never complained about being scheduled to work on Fridays.
Although the employer prevailed in this case, employers generally should be cautious and risk- averse when dealing with employee requests for religious accommodation. Employers must remember that they have an obligation to reasonably accommodate religious requests absent an undue hardship, which can be difficult to establish. Accordingly, we advise that employers engage in, and carefully document, the interactive process with employees requesting such an accommodation.
For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.