A recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia) provides an excellent reminder about the tricky nature of religious accommodation requests. Employers should remember that no request, no matter how strange sounding, should be discounted and that every single request should result in an analysis of whether a reasonable accommodation exists. Had the employer followed these simple rules, it could have utilized an available, cost-free accommodation and avoided what likely amounted to close to nearly $1 million in defense costs and damages.
In U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), the plaintiff-employee was a devout evangelical Christian who had worked at the company’s coal mine for nearly 40 years. By all accounts, the plaintiff performed satisfactorily during his employment. In 2012, the company implemented a handscanner system to better track employee work time. Employees were required to scan their hand when entering and leaving the mine instead of simply having the foreman report their hours worked. The company likely thought that such a system was relatively straightforward and should not cause much disruption or controversy.
The plaintiff’s objection was that, by using the handscanner, he risked having his hand branded as a follower of the Antichrist, thereby allowing the Antichrist to manipulate him. The company asked that the plaintiff provide a letter from his pastor explaining why he needed a religious accommodation. The plaintiff provided the letter from his pastor along with his own letter that further explained why he felt the handscanner system violated his religious beliefs based on his reading of the Book of Revelation.
Instead of taking the request at its face value, the company chose to dispute plaintiff’s interpretation of scripture by providing its own interpretation and also providing a letter from the handscanner manufacturer attesting that the machine could not place any marks on anyone. The company claimed that, according to its reading of scripture, the Mark of the Beast only applied to the right hand and the forehead so use of his left hand should be acceptable. However, the plaintiff feared that even if the device itself could not place a mark on him, that his willingness to allow any hand to be scanned could lead to his identification with the Antichrist. Thus, he refused to participate in the handscanner system and retired under protest.
Amazingly, at this same time, the company was readily accommodating other employees with injuries that could not use the handscanner system with an alternate number pad identification system. For whatever reason, the company declined to make the plaintiff aware of this option or offer it to plaintiff stating in an internal email “let’s make our religious objector use his left hand.” This foolish and unnecessary decision cost the company upwards of $1 million in defense costs and damages.
The case went to trial and the jury found that the plaintiff had sincere religious beliefs that conflicted with the handscanner policy, that the plaintiff had requested an accommodation and that the company had failed to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff. The jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages, $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits due to the constructive discharge and an untold number in attorney’s fees.
In sum, no matter how ridiculous the religious accommodation might initially sound, the employer should take it seriously unless they have legitimate, sound reasons to believe that the employee does not actually have any such sincerely held religious beliefs. Of course, as a matter of practice, it is extremely difficult to disprove someone has a sincerely held religious belief absent some unusual smoking gun. Further, the strategy of arguing with the employee about their interpretation of scripture is unlikely to lead to anything positive. Once a request is made, an employer should perform a complete analysis of whether any reasonable accommodations exist. Here, of course, it was undoubtedly damning that the company had a cost-free accommodation that it failed to offer. However, even if this didn’t exist, there were likely a host extremely reasonable accommodations that the company could have offered to track the work time of the plaintiff-employee.
If you have questions about this article, please contact an attorney at Mallery & Zimmerman.