Supreme Court Employment Law Update

The Supreme Court recently issued two opinions addressing the legal obligations of employers relative to their employees and potential hires.

In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (June 1, 2015), the Supreme Court held that Abercrombie & Fitch may have violated federal law when it refused to hire a Muslim applicant because her headscarf was inconsistent with the company’s “look policy” (a policy which prohibits employees from donning caps or other headwear). Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are required to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, and they cannot fire or refuse to hire someone because of their beliefs. The Court of Appeals found that the teen retailer was entitled to summary judgment, reasoning that because the applicant never actually requested an accommodation – and the company did not have “actual knowledge” that she was donning the headscarf for religious reasons – it could not be held liable for discrimination. The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning, ruling that the company’s motive – and not its “actual knowledge” – was the key inquiry. Indeed, the Court held that “an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” Accordingly, “[i]f the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice, and the employer’s desire to avoid the prospective accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII.” This case reminds employers that impermissible motivations of company decision-makers can open the door to legal exposure.

Separately, in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (March 25, 2015), the Supreme Court grappled with the issue of reasonable accommodations in the context of pregnancy. In that case, UPS had refused to allow a pregnant part-time employee to work while under a lifting restriction – since her job duties would require her to lift amounts in excess of the restriction – and it refused to grant the employee’s accommodation request. The trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of UPS and the Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the employee could not make out a case for pregnancy discrimination. The Supreme Court reversed, ruling that although employers are not required to give pregnant workers “unconditional most-favored-nation status,” here, there was a “genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.” In other words, because UPS may have accommodated certain non-pregnant employees, refusing to grant an accommodation to the plaintiff could constitute discrimination on the basis of her pregnancy. Accordingly, the case should have been allowed to proceed to trial. Young demonstrates that employers should work to ensure equal treatment of all employees.

Please stay tuned for future legal updates and contact Wright Beamer to seek assistance with your employment law needs.