The Law @ Work

First Circuit Adopts “Totality of the Circumstances” Approach to Reasonable Accommodation Analysis

Most employers know by now that they have an obligation to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs, but determining just what constitutes a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs can be a tricky issue for employers.  A recent case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Sanchez-Rodriguez v. AT&T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc. provides some guidance.

The plaintiff, Miguel Sánchez-Rodriguez, began working as a Retail Sales Consultant for AT&T in 2001, where he earned sales commissions ranging from $11,000 – $19,000.  In September of 2006, Sánchez informed AT&T that he had become a Seventh Day Adventist and had a religious obligation to attend religious services and abstain from work on Saturdays.  Accordingly, he requested Saturdays off as an accommodation in his work schedule.

In response to his request, AT&T informed Sánchez that his position required that he work rotating Saturday shifts and that the requested accommodation would be a hardship for the company.  Nevertheless, AT&T suggested that he voluntarily swap schedules with his co-workers.  It also offered Sánchez two different positions that would not require him to work on Saturdays.  (One of those positions typically required Saturdays off, but AT&T determined that it would not be a hardship to allow him Saturdays off in that alternative position.)  Both positions offered lower pay, and neither provided commissions.  Sánchez declined because his income would decrease significantly if he accepted either position.

In February of 2007, Sánchez filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency charged with enforcing federal equal employment opportunity laws, alleging religious discrimination.  In March of 2007, Sánchez informed his supervisor that he was unable to arrange swaps with his co-workers.  Therefore, he told his supervisor that he would, thereafter, not work his scheduled Saturday shifts.

In April of 2007, AT&T informed Sánchez that working rotating shifts (including Saturdays) was an “essential function” of his position.  AT&T warned Sánchez that, even though the company had not taken any disciplinary action against him for missing Saturday shifts, any further absences would not be acceptable because they placed a burden on other employees, who had to work more than their share of Saturdays.  Thus, the company informed Sánchez that it would impose discipline for any additional Saturdays that he missed.  Sánchez was placed on active disciplinary status when he continued to take Saturdays off.  He eventually resigned, stating that he found another position that would allow him to take Saturdays off.

After his resignation, Sánchez filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging, amongst other things, that he was discriminated because the company did not offer him a reasonable accommodation – namely, Saturdays off.  The district court dismissed Sánchez’ claims, finding that  AT&T had not failed to offer Sanchez a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs.

On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed.  The court reasoned that, when considering whether an employer provided a reasonable accommodation, the court must look at the totality of the circumstances and consider whether the combination of accommodations provided was reasonable.  In scrutinizing the combination in this case, the court noted that AT&T: (1) offered Sánchez two alternative positions; (2) allowed him to voluntarily swap shifts and; (3) refrained from disciplining him prior to May 2007 for missing Saturdays.  The court stated that it would not consider whether each of the accommodations on its own was reasonable, because each one was not offered in isolation.  Rather, each was offered as part of a series of attempts to accommodate Sánchez.  The court concluded that this combination, in light of the totality of the circumstances, was reasonable.  Therefore, Sanchez could not prevail on his Title VII claim.

This case stresses that the determination of whether an employer provides a reasonable accommodation is a fact-specific inquiry, based on a “totality of the circumstances” surrounding a particular situation.  In isolation, the offer of a position with less pay may appear to be an unreasonable accommodation; however, when considered along with other accommodation attempts by the employer, such an offer may be part of an employer’s reasonable accommodation.  Moreover, this case reiterates that an employee is not entitled to the accommodation of his or her choice – an employer satisfies its obligations under Title VII as long as it provides some reasonable accommodation.  Still, there is no “one size fits all” approach, and employers faced with requests for religious accommodations should consult with labor and employment counsel.

Click here for the full Sanchez-Rodriguez v. AT&T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc. opinion.

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