Aug 8, 2023

U.S. Supreme Court Answers Questions, Raises Others, Regarding How Employers Are to Best Accommodate Employees on the Basis of Religion

Written by: Brendan J. Besh

Employers seeking clarity on how to best accommodate its employees’ religious beliefs may find some answers and even more questions in the United States Supreme Court decision Groff v. DeJoy.[1] The decision focused on the Title VII requirement for employers to reasonably accommodate the religious observance or practice of their employees unless doing so would constitute undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.[2]

Without announcing any new standard, or even articulating precisely what costs an employer must incur as an “undue hardship” before being relieved of accommodation, the decision simply rejected the Court’s prior ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977),[1] that the employer need only “’to bear more than a de minimis cost,’” a standard that had been used for decades to interpret undue hardship. While the standard has been clarified so that an undue hardship is to instead mean “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of an employer’s particular business,” employers are left in the difficult position of having to discern how this new standard will be applied and what impacts this new standard could have on managing religious accommodations going forward.

In Groff, an employee of the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) brought a claim under Title VII for religious discrimination. The employee was unwilling to work on Sundays, and USPS, while not forcing the employee to work on Sunday, reassigned the employee’s scheduled Sunday shifts to other employees. USPS also instituted “progressive discipline” for failing to work on Sundays.[3] Eventually, the employee resigned and sued USPS for violating Title VII, “asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.”[4] The District Court granted summary judgment to USPS, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision based on their reliance on the Supreme Court’s former ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).[5] Because Hardison construed Title VII’s undue hardship standard to mean “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship,” the Third Circuit concluded that the de minimis cost standard was met as “exempting Groff from Sunday work... had imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”[6] The Supreme Court granted the employee’s writ of certiorari and unanimously reversed the decision of the Third Circuit.

In Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court, the Court reasoned that the Hardison precedent did not set out the proper standard for evaluating whether a reasonable accommodation constitutes an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. The Court ultimately held that showing “more than a de minimis cost” does not suffice to establish “undue hardship” as applied under Title VII’s accommodation requirement. “Undue hardship,” properly understood, is shown when the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of an employer’s particular business.[7] The Court’s reasoning relied upon the language in Hardison regarding the fact that an accommodation is not required when substantial costs would be incurred to the employer’s business and the meaning of “undue hardship” in ordinary speech. However, the Court declined to apply the undue hardship analysis to any set of particular facts, leaving questions regarding the application of the undue hardship standard to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The question then remains of how employers, including the defendant in Groff, will be able to practically establish an undue hardship as illuminated in Groff. Justice Sotomayor, in her concurrence, reasoned that an employer will be able to meet the undue hardship burden perhaps with a showing of undue hardship on the business’s employees.[1] But whether imposing on one’s coworkers, disrupting the workplace and workflow, and diminishing employee morale will constitute undue hardship, as substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of an employer’s particular business, appears unlikely given that the substantial increased costs requirement would constitute more than inconvenience and disruption. In light of Groff’s undue hardship analysis, the importance of seeking to provide reasonable accommodations, not only as a legal requirement under Title VII but also as a practical way to prevent avoidable litigation, has never been clearer.

[1] Groff, 600 U.S. at *3 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).


[1] Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. ____ (2023).

[2] 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a); 42 U.S.C. §2000e(j).

[3] Groff, 600 U.S. at *2-3.

[4] Id. at *3.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at *18 (emphasis added).

[8] Groff, 600 U.S. at *3 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).