• March 31, 2011

The decision today by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Harrell v. Donahue re-affirms the difficulty which employees have in proving that their employers failed to accommodate their religious beliefs.  In particular, employers are not required to take any action that would violate the terms of an applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement, nor anything that has more than a de minimis impact on co-workers.

Harrell is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a former employee of the United States Postal Service. After being fired from his position with the post office in Warrensburg, Missouri, Harrell brought suit, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for religious discrimination and failure to accommodate, as well as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., (RFRA). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the USPS; the 8th Circuit today affirmed that decision

In November 2006, Harrell submitted a written request to have every Saturday off because working at any time between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday conflicted with his religious beliefs. During a meeting to discuss his request, Harrell rejected the proposition that he be given leave for part of the day on Saturdays to attend church services and insisted that the only acceptable accommodation was that he receive every Saturday off.  The Postmaster for the Warrensburg Post Office asked the other full-time letter carriers whether they would be willing to give up any of their non-scheduled Saturdays to accommodate another letter carrier. Each declined.

During the summer of 2007, Harrell began to request leave for numerous Saturdays, but nearly all of his requests were denied. Ultimately, Harrell stopped working on Saturdays regardless of whether he was scheduled to work. Although Harrell requested leave for each absence, his requests were denied, and when he failed to report to work for his scheduled Saturday shifts, he was charged with being absent without leave. After Harrell was given three disciplinary suspensions due to his absences, he was terminated in March 2008.

Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees unless the employer can demonstrate that doing so would impose an undue hardship. Determinations of what constitutes an “undue hardship” must be made on a case-by-case basis. The accommodation requested by Harrell would have violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement that governed his job. Because  the CBA prohibited the USPS from making this accommodation, doing so would have therefore imposed an undue hardship and was not required.

As an alternative to a permanent change to his scheduled day off, Harrell contends the USPS could have accommodated him through annual leave and approved leave without pay. But the Court found that this would have also created an undue hardship. In addition to the violation of a collective bargaining agreement, an accommodation creates an undue hardship if it causes more than a de minimis impact on co-workers.  While differential  treatment alone is not enough to demonstrate an undue hardship, if accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs also causes a “real” and “actual” imposition on co-workers,  Title VII does not require an employer to make such an accommodation.  Here, even if granting leave to Harrell on Saturdays would not directly cause increased costs or decreased efficiency to the USPS, it would still create an undue hardship by violating the Post Office’s seniority system and imposing an additional burden on Harrell’s co-workers. In sum, the USPS was not required to violate the existing seniority system to accommodate Harrell.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the dismissal of Harrell’s RFRA claim.   That statute, which Congress passed in 1993, provides that the Government cannot impose a law that substantially burdens a person’s free exercise of religion unless the Government demonstrates that the law (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.  After analyzing both the legislative history and existing case law, the Court concluded that RFRA was not intended to broaden the remedies for federal employment discrimination beyond those that already existed under Title VII. As a result, Harrell’s claims under RFRA are barred because Title VII provides the exclusive remedy for his claims of religious discrimination.

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