Massachusetts Employment Law Letter

Are your religious accommodations reasonable?

Most employers know that Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee on the basis of his or her religion.  When an employee has a religious practice that interferes with certain work requirements, the employer must offer that employee a reasonable accommodation or show that such an accommodation would create a hardship for the employer. In the following case, the First Circuit adopted a new “totality of the circumstances” test to determine whether a combination of accommodations is reasonable.

“I need Saturdays off”

Miguel Sánchez-Rodríguez began working for AT & T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc., in March 2000. During September 2006, Sánchez-Rodríguez informed human resources that he had become a Seventh Day Adventist and was therefore unable to work on Saturdays due to his religion.  As a result, he requested an accommodation.

AT & T denied his request and instead offered him two different positions within the company that did not require Saturday hours.  Sánchez-Rodríguez declined because his salary would decrease if he took either of the other positions.  In February 2007, he filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging religious discrimination.

After Sánchez-Rodríguez declined the positions offered to him, AT & T notified him that he was permitted to find co-workers willing to swap shifts with him on a voluntary basis.  However, Sánchez-Rodríguez was unable to find volunteers to cover his Saturday shifts, and so he simply did not come to work on Saturdays.  AT & T warned Sánchez-Rodríguez that if he continued to miss his Saturday shifts he would be placed on active disciplinary status.  In May 2007, after Sánchez-Rodríguez continued to miss work on Saturdays, he was placed on active disciplinary status.  Sánchez-Rodríguez applied for three other positions within the company but was not interviewed for them.  In June 2007, Sánchez-Rodríguez resigned from the company.

The claims:  religious discrimination and retaliation

Sánchez-Rodríguez sued AT & T in federal court claiming religious discrimination and retaliation for filing his EEOC complaint.  AT & T then asked the court to dismiss the case before trial.

Under Title VII, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against “any individual because of his . . . religion.”  Employers are, therefore, required to accommodate employees’ “bonafide” religious beliefs “within reasonable limits.”  Title VII further prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee because that employee has filed a charge of discrimination or otherwise participated in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing.  The district court dismissed Sánchez-Rodríguez’ claims, finding that AT & T had offered him a reasonable accommodation and that the company had a non-discriminatory reason for its decision to discipline him. Sánchez-Rodríguez then filed an appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs federal law in Massachusetts.

A new standard:  the “totality of the circumstances”

In addressing Sánchez-Rodríguez’ religious discrimination claim, the First Circuit applied a two-part framework to analyze the claim.  First, an employee must demonstrate that his or her religious practice interfered with a work requirement and led to discipline by the employer. After the employee has adequately shown this, the employer must prove that a reasonable accommodation was offered to the employee or that such an accommodation would create an undue hardship for the employer.

The First Circuit agreed with the district court and found that Sánchez-Rodríguez had not established a claim for religious discrimination.  When analyzing whether the accommodation offered by AT & T was reasonable, the court adopted the “totality of the circumstances” approach taken by other federal courts.

The court found that AT & T attempted to accommodate Sánchez-Rodríguez in three different ways: (1) AT & T offered him two different positions that did not require him to work Saturday shifts; (2) AT & T allowed him to swap shifts with other workers on a volunteer basis; and (3) AT & T did not discipline Sánchez-Rodríguez for absenteeism before May 2007, even though he had been absent on Saturdays.  In determining whether this combination of accommodations was reasonable, the court noted that other courts had found similar accommodations or combinations of accommodations reasonable. The court reasoned that the accommodations offered to Sánchez-Rodríguez were not offered in isolation, but rather in combination with one another, and that the combination offered was more than reasonable.

Evidence of retaliation?

The First Circuit also concluded that AT&T had shown a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision to discipline Sánchez-Rodríguez, unrelated to either of his religion or the fact that he had filed a complaint with the EEOC:  his failure to come to work on Saturdays.  And Sánchez-Rodríguez could not show any evidence that this reason was a pretext or smokescreen for illegal retaliation.  Accordingly, the court also dismissed Sánchez-Rodríguez’ claim for retaliation and affirmed the holding of the district court.  The case is Sánchez-Rodríguez v. AT & T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc. (1st Cir. 2012).

Article By: Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.
Reprinted from the October 2012 issue of the Massachusetts Employment Law Letter.

Amelia Holstrom is an Associate at the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.  Amelia can be reached at (413) 737-4753 or AHolstrom@skoler-abbott.com.