Supreme Court Sides with Job Applicant in Religious Discrimination Claim

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who claimed that a clothing retailer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it turned down her job application. She specifically alleged that the retailer discriminated against her because she wore a headscarf as part of her religious practice as a Muslim, which the retailer claimed violated a policy on employee attire. The retailer claimed that she never requested a religious accommodation–such as an exception to the policy prohibiting headwear–and argued that it was not liable for any violation of her rights because it had no “actual knowledge” that she needed an accommodation. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the complainant only needed to prove that her need for a religious accommodation motivated the decision not to hire her. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n (EEOC) v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).

The complainant was a teenager when she applied for a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2008. She wore a headscarf to her interview with an assistant manager at the store. The assistant manager determined that the complainant was qualified for the position. She was reportedly concerned, however, that the complainant’s headscarf violated the store’s “Look Policy,” which regulated how employees dress at work in an effort to maintain a consistent style across the retailer’s nationwide locations. The assistant manager took her concerns to the store manager, who stated that the headscarf violated the Look Policy and instructed the assistant manager not to hire the complainant.

The EEOC filed suit against the retailer in 2009 on the complainant’s behalf, alleging that the decision not to hire her was motivated by her religion, as signified by her headscarf, in violation of Title VII. A district court granted summary judgment for the EEOC on the question of liability. 798 F.Supp.2d 1272 (N.D. Ok. 2011). It awarded the complainant $20,000 in damages after a trial. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed these rulings and entered summary judgment for the defendant. It held that the defendant lacked “actual knowledge” of the complainant’s need for a religious accommodation because she failed to request it, and the defendant therefore could not be liable for religious discrimination under Title VII. 731 F.3d 1106 (10th Cir. 2013).

The Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit in an 8-1 ruling. Justice Scalia, writing for the court, noted that Title VII allows only two causes of action: “disparate treatment,” in which an employer intentionally discriminates against an employee, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1); and “disparate impact,” in which an employer’s neutral-seeming policy or practice adversely affects an employee on the basis of the employee’s membership in a protected category, id. at § 2000e-2(a)(2). This case alleged disparate treatment.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that actual knowledge of the need for a religious accommodation is required to sustain a disparate treatment claim. It held that “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” Abercrombie, 575 U.S. ___, slip op. at 3. The court expressly rejected the argument that a job applicant has an affirmative duty to request a religious accommodation, holding that “an employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” Id. at 5.

If you need to speak to an employment discrimination attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997 today.

More Blog Posts:

Researchers Find Evidence of Employment Discrimination When Job Applicants Refer to Religious Affiliations, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, February 5, 2015
Supreme Court Will Consider Case Alleging Religious Discrimination in Employer’s Dress Code, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, December 23, 2014
Employers in New Jersey and Across the U.S. May Not Engage in Religious Discrimination, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 31, 2013

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