• April 20, 2011

I have written about religious accommodation issues before here and here.   Usually, these are tough cases for employees/plaintiffs to make.  In a decision earlier this week, however, Sr. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kyle (D. Minn.) denied a motion for summary judgment on a religious accommodation case in a decision that suggests that obtaining summary judgment in these types of cases could become more difficult.

Maroko is a Seventh Day Adventist who went to work for Werner, a trucking company.  After his position was terminated, he sued for religious discrimination.

To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination for failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must show that he (1) has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, (2) informed the employer of this belief, and (3) was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.  Werner challenged the third element, arguing that Maroko voluntarily abandoned his job. The Court rejected this argument as “disingenuous”, however, because it was the company that decided not to assign him any work, not Maroko who turned them down.

With a prima facie case established, the burden shifts to Werner to show that (1) it offered Maroko a reasonable accommodation, or (2) could not do so without undue hardship.   In this case,  Judge Kyle found that there was an issue of fact as to whether Werner actually offered Maroko a reasonable accommodation, as well as whether its proposed accommodation was “reasonable.”   The Court also rejected Werner’s attempt to show that accommodating Maroko would have resulted in an undue hardship.

Most troubling for employers, Judge Kyle concluded that the question of whether an employer offered an employee a reasonable accommodation, or faced undue hardship, ultimately boils down to whether the employer has acted reasonably, and that these are factual questions that do not lend themselves to dismissal at the summary judgment stage.  Therefore, the Court allowed Maroko’s case to proceed to trial.

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