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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch: In Title VII Disparate Treatment Action, Job Applicant Need Not Show that Employer Actually Knew of Need for Accommodation or that Applicant Requested Accommodation

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship. The question presented is whether this prohibition applies only where an applicant has informed the employer of his need for an accommodation. 
EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (6/1/15) ___ U.S. ___.

Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf for religious purposes, applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F). A&F staff 
assumed that Elauf wore the headscarf for religious purposes, but they did not know for sure and they did not ask. A&F rejected Elauf, believing her wearing a headscarf at work would violate its "Look Policy." 

The EEOC sued on Elauf's behalf, alleging that A&F violated Title VII. The trial court granted summary judgment for Elauf on liability, a jury awarded her damages, and the court entered judgment. The Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that A&F could not be liable because it did not know if Elauf actually needed a religious accommodation. 

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the Tenth Circuit, holding that a plaintiff may prevail in a Title VII disparate treatment action without showing that the defendant had actual knowledge of his or her need for a religious accommodation. Instead, an employer may be liable "even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed" and even if the applicant does not request religious accommodation.

The Court rejected the argument that a claim based on an applicant's religious practice must be raised as a disparate impact claim. "[R]eligious practice is one of the protected characteristics that cannot be accorded disparate treatment and must be accommodated."

An employer may be liable even if its policies treat religious practices no less favorably than similar secular practices. 

Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices—that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not “to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s” “religious observance and practice.” An employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no-headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an “aspec[t] of religious . . . practice,” it is no response that the subsequent “fail[ure] . . . to hire” was due to an otherwise neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.
Justice Scalia wrote the opinion, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joining. Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Thomas dissented. The opinion is available here

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