If an employee misses work to attend church on Sunday morning and the company subsequently fires her, is that religious discrimination? A jury in Texas recently said yes and awarded the plaintiff close to $350,000. The verdict is a reminder to employers to remember your religious accommodation obligations.
Trouble with supervisor and work scheduled for Sunday
Lois Davis worked in the IT department for Fort Bend County, Texas. Davis had a troubled history with the IT director and IT manager, who were friends. After Davis made allegations of sexual harassment against the IT director, he resigned. Davis alleged that thereafter the IT manager retaliated against her in a number of ways as part of her initial complaint. (Those retaliation claims were later dismissed on summary judgment, which was affirmed by the court of appeals.)
All of that led up to the weekend of July 2-3, 2011. Fort Bend County embarked on a major project to install computers, networks, and audiovisual equipment in the new Fort Bend County Justice Center, which was scheduled to open the following week. In June 2011, the IT manager informed the staff that they would be required to be available to work the weekend of July 2-3.
Davis goes to church and then gets fired
Davis was a devoted attendee of a Christian church in Houston, regularly attending both the 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. services and was a part of the church’s administration. On June 28, 2011, Davis told the IT manager that she would not be available to work on Sunday morning (July 3) due to a religious obligation at her church, but that she would arrange for a substitute. That Sunday morning her church was having a groundbreaking and community meal to celebrate in addition to the regular services. The IT manager told Davis that she would be disciplined if she did not show up to work on Sunday morning and that her offers to find a substitute would be inadequate.
Davis did not go to work on Sunday morning and her employment was terminated only a few days later on July 6 because of the Sunday absence. Davis alleged that the Justice Center opened on time and that employees were dismissed early that Sunday because all the work was completed.
The case was initially filed in 2012 and had a very convoluted procedural history that traveled up to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals twice, only to be remanded back to the trial court before the trial was ultimately held a few weeks ago.
Deeply held belief and no accommodation
At the trial for Davis’ religious discrimination claims, the jury found that Davis had shown that she held a sincere, bona fide religious belief that conflicted with a requirement of Fort Bend County — her work schedule. The jury further found that she informed Fort Bend County about her religious belief and ultimately suffered an adverse employment action for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. At trial, Davis’ direct supervisor testified that he was not aware that Title VII existed or required the county to offer Davis a religious accommodation.
The jury also found that Fort Bend County was able to reasonably accommodate Davis’ religious observance without undue hardship but failed to do so. The jury awarded Davis $50,000 in mental anguish damages, over $103,000 in back pay, and approximately $196,000 in accrued benefits. In so doing, the jury also concluded that Davis did not fail to mitigate her damages by not diligently seeking substantially similar employment.
Sometimes companies need to schedule work on Sundays or on religious holidays. The law permits those schedules, but employers need to be aware that if an employee has a conflict based on a deeply held religious belief they should seriously consider if they can accommodate the employee’s request. Here’s what to look for when presented with a religious accommodation request:
- Is the belief sincere? This is different than mainstream. Make sure your supervisors don’t dismiss a belief because it is unfamiliar to them. Also, make sure your supervisors know that they need to get guidance about scheduling or other conflicts that raise any religious issues. Rejecting a request based on the employer’s skepticism about the sincerity of the belief is risky.
- Is the employer aware of the religious belief and that the religious obligations conflict with a work requirement? Be careful about taking the position that an employee having to be in church all morning or twice in one day is excessive and doesn’t appear necessary to you. You can probe into the details of the religious obligation but be careful about making a decision based on your assessment of its necessity.
- Does accommodating the religious belief impose an undue hardship on the employer? Accommodation of a religious belief is a different standard than accommodation of a disability but you still need to be careful.
The jury clearly concluded that Fort Bend County could have found a viable workaround for that one Sunday morning that Davis wanted to go to the church’s service and groundbreaking event. Instead, they faced years of litigation and a substantial jury verdict.