Tuesday, June 2, 2015

EEOC vs. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores

The United States Supreme Court this week issued its decision in the closely-followed failure-to-accommodate religion case filed under Title VII by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") against popular retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch.  Relatively surprising is that the decision was 8-1, with Justice Scalia delivering the opinion of the Court.  The lone dissenter was Justice Thomas, who was actually chairman of the EEOC under the Reagan administration.

I first blogged about this case about two years ago when the 10th Circuit reversed the EEOC's victory in district court.  As a brief summary of the case, again, the issue presented was whether Title VII's prohibition against an employer from hiring an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship applies only where an applicant has informed the employer of his need for an accommodation.

Samantha Elauf is and was a practicing Muslim who, consistent with her understanding of her religion's requirements, wears a headscarf known as a hijab.  Elauf applied for a position in one of Abercrombie's stores and was interviewed and received a rating that qualified her for hiring.  However, the person that interviewed Elauf was concered that the hijab would conflict with Abercrombie's "Look Policy."  Toward that end, the interviewer went to the store manager for guidance to inquire as to whether the hijab was a forbidden "cap" under the Look Policy.  The store manager did not answer the interviewer so she then went to the district manager and told him that she believed Elauf wore the headscarf because of her faith.  The district manager told the interviewer that the headscarf would violate the Look Policy, as would all other headwear, religious or otherwise, and directed the interviewer not to hire Elauf.  Elauf then filed a charge with the EEOC and the EEOC then sued Abercrombie on her behalf, claiming that its refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII.

The district court granted the EEOC summary judgment on the issue of liability, held a trial on damages, and awarded $20,000.  The 10th Circuit reversed and awarded Abercrombie summary judgment, holding that ordinarily an employer cannot be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice until the applicant (or employee) provides the employer with actual knowledge of his need for an accommodation.

Supreme Court's Decision

Scalia began by citing Title VII's two types of claims that may be brought:  disparate treatment and disparate impact claims.  Abercrombie argued that an applicant cannot show disparate treatment without first showing that an employer has "actual knowledge" of the applicant's need for an accommodation.  The SCOTUS disagreed.  Instead, the Court held, an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision.

The disparate treatment provision forbids employers to:  (1) "fail ... to hire" an applicant (2) "because of" (3) "such individual's ... religion" (which includes his religious practice).  In breaking these elements down, the Court noted that Abercrombie (1) failed to hire Elauf and that (3) Elauf's wearing of a headscarf is a "religious practice."  Thus, the only existing issue and argument was whether she was not hired (2) "because of" her religious practice.

In discussing the term "because of," the Court noted that it typically imports, at a minimum, the traditional standard of but-for causation, but that Title VII relaxes this standard to prohibit even making a protected characteristic a "motivating factor" in an employment decision.  Furthermore, the Court stated, "it is significant that sec. 2000e-2(a)(1) does not impose a knowledge requirement."

The Court then stated, firmly, that "the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward:  An employer may not make an applicant's religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions." 

The Concurring Opinion

Justice Alito delivered the concurring opinion which essentially took issue with the majority opinion's seeming omission of the employer's inability in the case to posit the defense of undue hardship.  The majority opinion did reference undue hardship in a footnote stating:
For brevity's sake, we will in the balance of this opinion usually omit reference to the sec. 2000e(j) "undue hardship" defense to the accommodation requirement, discussing the requirement as though it is absolute.
Unless I am incorrect, I do not believe Abercrombie attempted to show undue hardship as a defense and more or less "hung its hat," so to speak, on their argument about not having actual knowledge of Elauf's religion or potential need for accommodation.

The Dissent

Justice Thomas delivered the lone dissent in this case claiming that the EEOC can only prevail if Abercrombie engaged in intentional discrimination, and that because Abercrombie's application of its neutral Look Policy does not meet that description, that he would affirm the 10th Circuit's decision granting summary judgment.

Justice Thomas believed Abercrombie's Look Policy was neutral and did not intentionally discriminate against any religion.  The problem, especially in this case, is the fact Abercrombie knew--either because of the obvious appearance of Elauf and her name--that Elauf is Muslim and more than likely needed to wear the headscarf every day because of her religion, and inquired about how to handle the hiring decision.  At that point, it's arguable Abercrombie knew that they would have to consider accommodating her religion and allowing her to wear the headscarf, in violating of their Look Policy, or, argue that her wearing the headscarf served as an undue hardship, which essentially means they'd have to argue that the headscraf would harm their sales and image--a public relations nightmare. 

Employment law cases are almost always reliant on detailed facts.  Thus, this case perhaps turns out different with one slight deviation in the facts.  I have read several articles in the aftermath of the ruling and the defense bars is making the decision perhaps out to be worse than it is by implicating employers will face liability without fault.  As I stated earlier in this post, Elauf's name, combined with the headscarf, prompted the Abercrombie interviewer to inquire about the Look Policy, which showed their decision not to hire her was based on her religion as she was otherwise rated as 'hire-able.'  If Abercrombie wanted to truly stick behind its neutral policy and/or argue undue hardship, they surely had opportunity to do so but they probably knew arguing that the "Muslim look" is not compatible with their marketing and target demographic would have surely doomed them.  

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