Walmart just settled a religious discrimination case — what it could mean for religious accommodations in the workplace
The majority of civil cases are settled before being resolved by a court. Many of these lawsuits settle before trial, although some cases settle after trial and during the appeal process. But it’s rare for a case to be settled after someone asks the United States Supreme Court to reconsider the case.
Why would a litigant spend tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars and years in litigation, only to settle a case after the highest court has ruled on the case? An obvious answer is fear of losing the case, although there may be more to it.
Let’s say you won at first instance and won again on appeal. There is a good chance that you will win in the Supreme Court of the United States. But there is no guarantee of another legal victory. And sometimes losing the case can mean more than just losing the case. This could lead to a legal change which means you could lose a lot more cases like this in the future.
This situation may have played out in a recent religious discrimination lawsuit involving Walmart and a prospective employee who alleged religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).
Religious Accommodations under Title VII
Title VII is the law that most employees rely on if they want to sue their employer for religious discrimination. This law applies to employers with 15 or more employees and its protections apply not only to current employees, but also to applicants for employment.
The prohibition of religious discrimination is not the only right provided by Title VII. There is also the right to reasonable accommodation in the workplace to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs. However, this reasonable accommodation must not create undue hardship for the employer.
What is undue hardship? This is something that creates more than a “de minimis” cost for the employer. If there is a modest and temporary increase in an employer’s expenses to accommodate the employee, this could be considered a de minimis cost. But if that expense is significant or permanent, such as requiring the employer to hire an additional employee or pay permanent overtime or shift premiums to other workers, it’s likely more than a de minimis cost to the company. employer.
Undue hardship also relates to non-monetary costs, such as diminished rights and benefits of other workers, reduced effectiveness of other jobs, or reduced workplace safety.
This de minimis standard for defining excessive burden was established in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison over 40 years ago. This standard under Title VII is more generous to employers than the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) undue hardship standard. Under the ADA, a covered employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to an eligible employee unless it imposes “significant hardship or expense.”
It’s possible that Walmart’s decision to settle its religious discrimination case was an attempt to prevent the U.S. Supreme Court from altering the relatively easy to meet Title VII de minimis standard. The last thing Walmart would want is for the definition of excessive load under Title VII to turn into something more generous for employees, like the definition of excessive load under the ADA.
EEOC vs. Walmart Stores East LP
In April 2016, Walmart offered Edward Hedican (Hedican) a position as one of eight assistant managers at one of its stores. Hedican was a Seventh-day Adventist and it was a full-time position. This meant that he had to work on his Sabbath, which began at sundown on Friday and ended at sundown on Saturday.
After receiving the job offer, Hedican explained his scheduling needs given his religious beliefs. The store’s human resources manager looked into accommodation options for Hedican. She found a few options, but concluded they would create an undue burden on Walmart. She came to this conclusion for several reasons.
First, it would force other assistant managers to take on extra shifts on Friday nights and Saturdays, which were among the least popular shifts.
Second, it would end that particular store’s policy of rotating all eight assistant managers in all potential schedule patterns. This allowed assistant managers to gain work experience in all departments of the store. The store manager has implemented this policy to make it easier for assistant managers to replace each other in the event of vacation, illness, resignation, etc.
Third, the first two problems could be avoided, but only if a ninth assistant manager was hired or if the store was sometimes understaffed.
Given these scenarios, the store’s human resources manager told Hedican that its religious planning needs could not reasonably be met. She suggested he apply for a time management position, which didn’t have the complicated scheduling requirements of an assistant manager. Hedican declined to apply and instead filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC ultimately sued on Hedican’s behalf and alleged Title VII violations due to religious discrimination and retaliation. The EEOC alleged that Walmart withdrawing his job offer constituted retaliation for his request for religious accommodation and that Walmart improperly refused to provide religious accommodation to Hedican.
Walmart filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Seventh Circuit), the appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision, relying heavily on the de minimis legal standard set out in Hardison .
The EEOC asked the Seventh Circuit to reconsider its decision, but they refused. Hedican then asked the Seventh Circuit for permission to resume litigation, but was denied.
But in March 2022, the United States Supreme Court granted Hedican’s application to intervene (resumption of litigation). This would likely allow him to appeal his case to the United States Supreme Court and ask it to reconsider whether to overturn the Hardison case and change the excessive demand standard to de minimis cost.
The Supreme Court and reversing precedent
Absent certain procedural nuances, when the Supreme Court of the United States makes a decision, that decision becomes the supreme law of the land and supersedes any conflicting law, statute, regulation, rule, legal standard, or executive order. . Basically, the only thing he doesn’t win is the US Constitution itself.
Currently, the Hardison case is the law when it comes to determining what constitutes a subburden for religious accommodations under Title VII. But at least three members of the United States Supreme Court (Justices Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch) have expressed a desire to overturn Hardison. Presumably, they would change the definition of undue burden to something that would require employers to do more to accommodate the religious needs of their employees.
While three votes wouldn’t be enough to overturn Hardison, it’s not a stretch to assume that at least two of the three remaining conservative justices (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh) would also agree with the idea. Then factor in the United States Supreme Court’s move to improving the religious rights of individuals, and Walmart’s concerns become apparent.
Walmart settling a case to keep Hardison from being canceled is only a theory, but it’s still a distinct possibility. Maybe Walmart didn’t care about losing to Hedican, even if it meant paying a lot of money. But they certainly wanted Hardison to be replaced with a new case redefining religious accommodations in the workplace. Either way, the regulations signal the potential for change in what employers must do to accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees.