By Julie Furer Stahr
The U.S. Supreme Court today decided the widely publicized case filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie), in which a Muslim female applicant who wore a headscarf was denied employment with Abercrombie based on the company's dress code policy. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, U.S. Supreme Court, No.14-86 (June 1, 2015).
Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, applied for employment with Abercrombie. She came to the interview wearing a headscarf. The assistant store manager rated Elauf as qualified for the position, but expressed concern to her superiors that Elauf's headscarf would violate Abercrombie's Look Policy, which prohibits the wearing of "caps." The term "caps" is not defined in the policy. The assistant manager also informed her superiors that she believed Elauf's headscarf was worn pursuant to her religion. The district manager directed that Elauf be denied employment, because the headscarf would violate the Look Policy, just as any other headgear would, whether worn for religious reasons or not.
The EEOC filed suit against Abercrombie. The district court entered judgment in favor of Elauf, and a trial on damages resulted in a $20,000 award to Elauf. Abercrombie appealed to the Tenth Circuit, which reversed the district court and entered summary judgment in favor of Abercrombie. Elauf appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to deny employment to an applicant because the employer desires to avoid extending reasonable accommodation based on the applicant's religious beliefs. In this case, Abercrombie argued that this prohibition applies only when the applicant requests a religious accommodation or otherwise notifies the employer of the need for an accommodation. In this case, Elauf did not at any time make a request for reasonable accommodation, and therefore, argued Abercrombie, she cannot prove that Abercrombie had knowledge of the need for accommodation, which should be a prerequisite to proving religious discrimination.
The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that an applicant or employee need not necessarily show that the employer had actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation, only that the need for an accommodation was a "motivating factor" in the employment decision. The Court drew a distinction between the statutory language of the Americans with Disabilities Act's accommodation provisions, which discusses an employer's obligations with respect to "known physical or mental limitations" (emphasis added), and with the language of Title VII's religious accommodation provision, which is silent on the knowledge requirement. According to the Court, the rule for a failure to accommodate claim under Title VII’s religious discrimination provision is "straightforward": an employer may not consider an applicant's religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, as a factor in employment decisions. The Court's opinion offers an example of an employer who assumes that an orthodox Jew who applies for employment will need Saturdays off for the Sabbath. If the employer acts on this assumption and denies the applicant employment because of it, Title VII would be violated, regardless of whether the applicant ever make a request for Saturdays off or otherwise stated a request for accommodation.
While the Court noted that an employee's request for religious accommodation may make it easier to prove it was a motivating factor in the employer's decision, it is not a necessary component to the claim. Thus, in this case, Abercrombie was liable for violating the religious discrimination provisions of Title VII based on a failure to accommodate, despite the fact that Elauf never made a request for an accommodation.
Speculation About Accommodation May Be Enough
This decision has potentially far reaching effects. The Supreme Court has made clear that an individual need not use specific words or terminology relating to the need for religious accommodation, or even make a request at all, in order for liability for failure to accommodate to arise. Whether the need for accommodation is actually known, or merely speculated, assumed, or otherwise factored into an adverse employment decision, liability can arise — even if the need has not been expressed or substantiated at the time of the employment decision.