Tuesday, June 20, 2017

4th Circuit Holds Employer's Refusal to Accommodate Employee's Religious Accommodation Against Use of Hand Scanner Violated Title VII

Religious discrimination and failure-to-accommodate religion claims are still amongst the rarest discrimination claims that go to trial and a recent opinion out of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit showcases just why that is as the Court ruled in favor of an employee who felt forced to retire after nearly 40 years with this employer when they implemented a hand scanner system which the employee believed violated his religious beliefs and could have potentially amounted to a "mark of the beast."  This is yet another decision highlighting the Courts' precedent of refusing to question an employee's religious beliefs and interpretations and holding an employer liable when they choose to question such beliefs without showing accommodation would pose an undue hardship.

This appeal contained numerous issues on appeal, but this post will only focus on the employer's liability under Title VII.

Facts

The plaintiff, Beverly R. Butcher Jr., worked for the defendant, Consol Energy, Inc., for 37 years, without incident, as a coal miner at their Robinson Run Mine.  Butcher is also a life-long evangelical Christian, an ordained minister and associate pastor, and served his church in a variety of capacities.  That he had sincerely-held beliefs was not at issue in this case.

In 2012, Consol implemented a biometric hand-scanner system at the mine Butcher worked at in order to better monitor the attendance and work hours of its employees.  The scanner system required each employee checking in or out of a shift to scan his or her right hand; the shape of the right hand was then linked to the worker's unique personnel number.  This posed a problem for Butcher because he believed it presented a threat to core religious commitments.  Butcher feared that use of the hand-scanning system would result in being "marked" leading to his identification with the Antichrist.  Butcher brought his concerns to his union representative who alerted Consol's HR department.

Butcher was instructed by HR to provide a letter from his pastor explaining why he needed a religious accommodation, which he did.  Butcher also prepare his own letter, citing verses from the Book of Revelation and explaining his view that the hand scanner would associated him with the Mark of the Beast, causing him through his will and actions to serve the Antichrist.  Butcher later offed to check in with his shift supervisor or to punch in on a time clock, as he had in the past while working at the time.

Consol's HR supervisor gave Butcher a letter written by the scanner's manufacturer, offering assurances that the scanner cannot detect or place a mark--including the Mark of the Beast--on the body of a person.  Offering its own interpretation of "the Scriptures," the letter explained that because the Mark of the Beast is associated only with the right hand or the forehead, use of the left hand in the scanner would be sufficient to obviate any religious concerns regarding the system.

Unbeknownst to Butcher, Consol was providing an accommodation to other employees that allowed them to bypass the new scanner system altogether.  As of July 2012, Consol had determined that two employee with hand injuries, who could not be enrolled through a scan of either hand, instead could enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system.  According to Consol's own trial witness, this accommodation imposed no additional cost or burden on the company, and allowing Butcher to use the keypad procedure would have been similarly cost-free.

Consol ultimately denied Butcher's request for accommodation and informed him that failure to use the hand scanner system would result in following company policy, which was essentially writing him up until enough write-ups warranted termination.  Given the inevitable, Butcher tendered his resignation.  Butcher later filed a complaint with the EEOC, who then filed suit in district court under Title VII and prevailed after a jury trial, with the jury awarding compensatory damages and lost wages and benefits, but not punitive damages.  Consol appealed on several issues, but the 4th Circuit completely affirmed every ruling the district court made.

Opinion

Consol's Failure to Accommodate Butcher's Sincerely Held Religious Belief

To show a violation of an employer's "reasonable accommodation" duty, an employee must prove that: (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; and (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.  On appeal, Consol argued that the evidence presented at trial was legally insufficient to support the jury's specific findings under the first and third of these elements: that there was a conflict between a bona fide religious belief held by Butcher and the requirement that Butcher use the hand scanner, and that Butcher was constructively discharged as a result.

Consol unsuccessfully attempted to argue that there was in fact no conflict between Butcher's beliefs and its requirement that Butcher use the hand scanner system because the system would not imprint a physical mark on his hand.  Consol argued that this fact means the EEOC failed to establish that Butcher could not use the scanner system without compromising his beliefs regarding the Mark of the Beast.  Both the district court and 4th Circuit disagreed with this argument.

The district court explained that there was ample evidence from which a jury could conclude that Butcher sincerely believed "participation in this system"--with or without a tangible mark--"was a showing of allegiance to the Antichrist," inconsistent with his deepest religious convictions.  That is all that is required to establish the requisite conflict between Butcher's religious beliefs and Consol's inconsistence that he use its scanner system.

The court explained:  "At bottom, Consol's failure to recognize this conflict--in its dealings with Butcher as well as its litigation of this case--appears to reflect its conviction that Butcher's religious beliefs, though sincere, are mistaken:  that the Mark of the Beast is not, as Butcher believes, associated with mere participation in a scanner identification system, but instead manifests only as a physical mark, placed upon the right and not the left hand; and that as a result, allowing Butcher to scan his left hand through the system would be more than sufficient to obviate any potential conflict."  In fact, the Court stated:  "It is not Consol's place as an employer, not ours as a court, to question the correctness of even the plausibility of Butcher's religious understandings. ... So far as there is sufficient evidence that Butcher's beliefs are sincerely held--which the jury specifically found, and Consol does not dispute--and conflict with Consol's employment requirement, that is the end of the mater."

Butcher's Quitting Amounted to a Constructive Discharge

To satisfy the third element of a failure to accommodate religion claim, it only has to be shown that "an employer deliberately [made] the working conditions of the employee intolerable."  The 4th Circuit noted that the Supreme Court revised the standard for constructive discharge in 2016 and expressly rejected a "deliberateness" or intent requirement, which means the standard for constructive discharge requires only an objective "intolerability."  The 4th Circuit ultimately agreed with the district court that there existed substantial evidence that Butcher was put in an intolerable position when Consol refused to accommodate his religious objection, requiring him to use a scanner system that Butcher sincerely believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist, "tormented with fire and brimstone."

The 4th Circuit also agreed that the future prospect of a successful grievance under the collective bargaining agreement would do anything to alleviate the immediate intolerability of Butcher's circumstances.

The remainder of the opinion addresses several other issues raised on appeal, but the 4th Circuit affirmed the district court on all of those issues as well.

This case serves as yet another important reminder that if accommodation does not impose an undue hardship, employers are probably best served erring on the side of accommodation and not trying to argue against an employee's purported sincerely held religious beliefs.  What could have been a cost-free accommodation to Consol turned into years of expensive litigation that led to a six-figure jury verdict against them, even more costly appeal fees, and affirmation of the employee.

The case is EEOC v. CONSOL Energy, Inc., No. 16-1230 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017).  Attorney Paul Mollica also briefly wrote about this case over at his blog.

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