Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When is a failure to accommodate an employee’s religion actionable?

If an employee approaches your HR department and asks for an accommodation for his or her religion, you might think that your company has an automatic obligation to provide the accommodation. Reed v. United Auto Workers (6th Cir. 6/23/09) [PDF], suggests otherwise.

In Reed, a union member claimed that the UAW discriminated against him because of his religion by failing to reasonably accommodate his religious objection to financially supporting the union.

Under Title VII employers (and labor unions) have a statutory obligation to reasonably accommodate the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship. To establish a failure to accommodate claim, an employee must show: (1) that s/he holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) s/he has informed the employer about the conflict; and (3) s/he was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. If an employee makes this showing, the employer (or, in this case, labor union) can avoid liability by showing that it could not reasonably accommodate the employee without undue hardship.

Reed’s claim failed because he could not show that he was discharged or disciplined as a result of his religious belief: “Unless a plaintiff has suffered some independent harm caused by a conflict between his employment obligation and his religion, a defendant has no duty to make any kind of accommodation.”

The next time you are faced with an employee requesting a workplace accommodation for some religious belief, do not necessarily assume that the accommodation is owed. The employee’s religious belief may not be sincere, the accommodation might be unreasonable and pose an undue hardship, or, as was the case in Reed, the failure to provide the accommodation may not result in any discipline or discharge. 

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or