Third Circuit Breathes New Life Into EEOC Enforcement Lawsuit

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Elisabeth Bassani, and Danielle Dwyer

Duane Morris Takeaways:  On February 1, 2024, in EEOC v. Center One, LLC, Nos. 22-2943 & 22-2944 (3d Cir. Feb. 1, 2024), the Third Circuit held that a District Court erred when it granted summary judgment for an employer and dismissed a case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a Jewish employee who claimed he was forced to quit after his employer denied him time off for religious holidays.  The decision is a reminder of employers’ obligations to reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances.

Background Of The Case

The EEOC, on behalf of Demetrius Ford, alleged that Ford’s employer, Center One, discriminated against him based on his religion and constructively discharged him in violation of Title VII because it refused to accommodate his request for time off for high holidays.  Specifically, the EEOC asserted that Center One assigned Ford “demeritorious attendance points” because he missed work to observe Rosh Hashanah and subsequently refused to permit him time off for future high holidays without an “official” letter from his congregation attesting to his need to be absent.  Id. at 5. Center One also scheduled a meeting with Ford to discuss his attendance issues on Yom Kippur, despite acknowledging it knew it was a high holy day in Judaism.  Ford submitted an email exchange with a leader from a congregation in response to Center One’s request for documentation, but Center One told Ford that it needed something more “official.”  Id. Ford eventually tendered his resignation, explaining that he was not able to obtain an “official clergy letter.”  Id. at 6.

The District Court granted summary judgment to Center One, holding that a mere accrual of attendance points for missing work did not constitute an adverse employment action, and that Ford was not constructively discharged.

The Third Circuit’s Ruling

On appeal, the Third Circuit unanimously vacated the District Court’s ruling and remanded for further proceedings. It held that the EEOC and Ford presented enough evidence for a jury to decide if Ford was constructively discharged.  Notably, the Third Circuit agreed with the District Court in finding that accruing attendance points — without any other changes to the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment — did not constitute an adverse employment action.

But, because there was no dispute that Center One required Ford to work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and that Center One asked Ford for an “official” letter from his congregation attesting to his need to take off on high holidays, the Third Circuit opined that a jury could find that Center One’s conduct created an intolerable work environment.  It specifically noted that a requirement for “official clergy verification was at odds with the EEOC’s Guidance on religious discrimination, as well as our precedent.” Id. at 8. The Third Circuit also cautioned that “[t]he doctrine of constructive discharge does not require an employee who is seeking religious accommodation to either violate the tenets of his faith or suffer the indignity and emotional discomfort of awaiting his inevitable termination.” Id.

Implications For Employers

The ruling in EEOC v. Center One LLC reminds employers that they need to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.  Such accommodations are required unless an employer can show that the accommodation would create an undue hardship.  The decison also cautions employers that while they can request documentation in support of an accommodation, they cannot require an official letter from a clergy member, spiritual leader, or other congregant.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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