Holy Moly! Whopping $21.5 Million Verdict Because She Couldn't Work On Sunday "Because Sunday I Honor God”

We have published many posts about the tension between religion beliefs and practices and an employer’s right to reasonable control of the workplace.  This tension is, of course, addressed in Title VII which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of, among many things, religion. Indeed, it is fair to state that Title VII created that tension when it made religion a protected class in order to protect religious beliefs and practices – before that the employer’s decision governed.  

So how is this tension manifested?  A couple of examples:

An employer needs his employees to work Monday through Friday when her business is open – but certain religions require people not to work on certain days, such as the Sabbath.  

Or an employer may insist that all employees have a certain “look” or wear a certain prescribed style of dress or grooming, but certain religious beliefs and practices require, for example, women not to wear pants or men or women to wear a head covering.

So how is this tension resolved?    

Sometimes it’s not – and then it goes to court.

“No work on Sunday, because Sunday I honor God”

A new case – not dissimilar to the many prior cases we’ve posted about, involves a long tenured dishwasher at a tony Miami hotel.  Apparently, after informing the hotel at her hiring that she could not work on Sundays because she said that she was a missionary for the Soldiers of Christ Church, and being permitted for almost 10 years to take Sundays off, she was told by a kitchen manager that she must work on Sundays.

The employee gave the manager a letter from her pastor explaining her sincerely held religious beliefs – but he allegedly tossed it.  She even switched shifts with co-workers for a while until she was allegedly “terminated for alleged misconduct, negligence, and ‘unexcused absences.’ ”

Guess The Employer Didn’t Read Our Blog

She sued, claiming (correctly) that the hotel had an obligation to “reasonably accommodate” her religious beliefs as long as it did not create an undue burden — which the jury apparently found compelling enough to award her a total of $21.5 million:  $36,000 for lost wages and benefits, $500,000 for emotional pain and mental anguish, and $21 million is for punitive damages

Wow!!

(Note: because of a cap on punitive damages the $21 million will likely be cut to $300,00).  But still … Wow!

Let’s take a quick look at some of the prior cases which we’ve discussed.

A logging company settled a case for $53,000 for allegedly refusing to accommodate a truck driver’s religious belief – he is Hebrew Pentecostal – and firing him because he “observes a Sabbath which begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday.”

Then there was the South Carolina company who hired a Hebrew Pentecostal truck driver who told them that he could not, for religious reasons, work on the Sabbath.  Nonetheless, he was later fired for refusing to do so.  The EEOC sued the company.

And the North Carolina company which hired a Seventh-day Adventist truck driver (another truck driver?) whose religious beliefs require that he not work on the Sabbath.  “The company’s facilities were usually closed on Saturdays and employees only worked Saturdays on limited occasions … but the company asked [him to work on a particular] Saturday.”  He asked for an accommodation for his religious beliefs but was refused – and fired.

Finally, the EEOC filed suit in August 2015 based upon religious discrimination under Title VII claiming that a bookkeeper was told that he had to work Saturdays. Being a Hebrew Pentecostal, who cannot work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, he asked instead to be permitted the accommodation of working Sundays or late on week nights other than Fridays.  He was fired.

Takeaway

Title VII requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs unless unduly burdensome.

One EEOC attorney said that “Federal law requires employers to fairly balance an employee’s right to practice his or her religion and the operation of the business. For an accommodation to be meaningful under Title VII, it both must respect the employee’s religious beliefs and permit her to do her job effectively.”

And let’s reprint a quote from an EEOC attorney in one of these cases above: “Many times when there is a conflict between an employee’s religious beliefs and a work rule, there are easy modifications to company policy permitting an employee to continue to work without violating his religious beliefs.”  

As we’ve noted before, there are usually not only easy – but also inexpensive – accommodations that can be made in these cases.

Let’s add to that the requirement that an employer must engage the employee in that famous “interactive process” to determine if there exists an accommodation that is not unduly burdensome.

It’s not that difficult – and it can save a heckuva lot of money, time and aggravation. And money.

Postscript:   I recommended some time ago a short, (very) concise summary of Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination in employment found in Brad Reid’s Huff Post Business “The Blog,” in a three-page piece titled “A Legal Overview of Religious Discrimination in Employment.”   

Worth reading if you can still find it.

Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]