As we are now in the middle of the holiday season, it is worth noting a recent, interesting decision concerning an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. In Miller v. The Port of Authority, 15-cv-6370 (KM)(MAH), the District Court rejected a worker’s suit that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the “Port Authority”) failed to accommodate his religious beliefs that precluded him from working on the Sabbath.
There are two types of religious discrimination, a disparate treatment claim (where an employee claims he is being treated differently because of his religion) and a claim for a failure to accommodate. In Miller, plaintiff argued the latter, that his request for an accommodation was rejected by his employer. In contrast, the employer argued that it offered various options to Miller, including the option to swap shifts with other employees, or that he could use vacation, personal excused time or compensatory time for religious purposes. The Port Authority also argued that exempting Miller from work on the Sabbath, without first offering that option to more senior employees, would have violated the governing collective bargaining agreement’s (“CBA’s”) seniority provision. The Hon. Kevin McNulty held that the religious accommodation offered by the Port Authority was reasonable and that the blanket exemption proposed by plaintiff would have imposed more than a de minimis hardship. Therefore, the employer was not required to accept it, and granted summary judgment in favor of defendant.
Judge McNulty’s decision is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it notes that “the standard imposed on employers for a religious accommodation is not as demanding as the accommodation of a disability required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” As noted above, the Court held that an accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” if it would impose more than a de minimis burden on the employer. “Such a burden may take the form of economic costs, but may also include non-economic costs, such as damage to employee morale or compromise of a CBA …” Second, the decision confirms that an employer’s accommodation proposal simply must be “reasonable.” It is not required to totally eliminate any conflict and an employer is not required to accommodate the religious practices of an employee in exactly the way the employee would like. Third, while noting that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals hasn’t endorsed the approach, Judge McNulty held that an employer could offer a combination of accommodations, and found that what the Port Authority offered was reasonable.