Jury Issue Exists over Employment Termination Following Funeral Attendance Overseas

In Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, (7th Cir. July 31, 2013), the Seventh Circuit reversed a summary judgment that a trial court granted in favor of the employer. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars employment discrimination on the basis of religion. As a result, employers must reasonably accommodate employees who make requests to partake in religious practices or acts (Slip op. at 1-2). In this case, the employee sought several weeks of unpaid leave to attend his father's funeral overseas in Nigeria, and to lead the performance of the burial rites.  Id. at 2. The employee explained that his attendance at the funeral rites was "compulsory" and that if he did not show up to perform the rites, he and his family would sustain a spiritual death. Id. The employer denied the requests for unpaid leave. The employee attended the funeral ceremony in Nigeria and his employment was terminated upon his return appearance at his workplace. The trial court granted the employer summary judgment based on its finding that the employee's two letters failed to provide any notice of the religious character inherent in his requests for unpaid leave. Id. at 2. The Seventh Circuit disagreed and found the same letters and record adequately created disputed issues of material fact over whether the employer had notice of the religious matter associated with the request for leave, and whether the employee had a sincerely held religious belief, as well as over causation and the employer's claimed undue hardship.

Of significance, the court began its analysis by noting the broad description of religion in the statute and relevant case law. Id. at 3-5 & n.1, citing 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e-2(j)("The term 'religion' includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to [sic] an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business"); Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 419 F.3d 678, 681 (7th Cir. 2005)("[W]hen a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of ultimate concern that for her occupy a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons, those beliefs represent her religion."); Reed v. Great Lakes Co., 330 F.3d 931, 934 (7th Cir. 2003)(explaining that Title VII recognizes atheism as a religion). The court's detailed discussion of what qualifies as religion under Title VII suggests that the court had concerns over the manner in which the request for unpaid leave was perceived, even though the trial court limited the scope of its summary judgment ruling to the issue of adequate notice to the employer. Id. at 5-6. The appellate court, however, had to also reach the other issues because the employer raised them as alternative grounds for affirming summary judgment. Id. at 6-7.

The notice requirement serves a practical function. Employers are not presumed to possess specific knowledge about the religious significance of various practices. Therefore, employees must make the religious nature of their accommodation requests reasonably clear. Id. at 7-8. The court then quoted the employee's two written requests for leave which not only mentioned his father's funeral, but his need to "participate in the funeral rite according to our custom and tradition [,]" and his need "to be there and involved totally in this burial ceremony[.]" Id. at 8-9. The Seventh Circuit found such communications sufficient to create a jury issue over the adequacy of the employee's notice in conveying the religious character of his requests for leave made to the employer. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court's ruling granting summary judgment to the employer on the issue of notice. Id. at 9-11.

The appellate court proceeded to determine that the employee adequately created an issue of material fact over whether he held a sincere religious belief. On this front, the court basically brushed aside the employer's demonstrated concerns about the sincerity of the employee's religious beliefs as generally springing from irrelevant inquires, or relying on ambiguous deposition answers given by the employee. In some respects, the court critiqued the employer's defense in this area as misguided, or as asking the court to probe too deeply into religious matters to find inconsistencies on the part of the employee. Moreover, the court also expressed its hesitancy about delving into specific evaluations and applications of religious doctrine to measure the content of the employee's religious beliefs.  Id. at 11-18 & n.2 and n.3. In contrast, the court quickly dispatched with the issue of causation. The record contained undisputed evidence of the employee leading the burial rights, and later being terminated from his job because of his absence to conduct his religious practices. Such ample evidence barred the entry of summary judgment in favor of the employer on the issue of causation. Id. at 18-19.

Of interest to many employers is how the court dealt with the issue of undue hardship. Here, the court started its discussion with a citation to a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that described unpaid leave as a generally reasonable and acceptable method to accommodate religious faiths and practices. Id. at 19-20, citing Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 70-71 (1986). The issue here was how the court would weigh the "reasonableness" factor in light of the employee's request for several weeks of unpaid leave. The court reviewed specific facts about the categories of jobs involved and the employee's performance of his tasks as a material handler and packer/palletizer.  Id. at 20. The employer had high turnover of persons in both jobs.  Moreover, temporary staff filled from one-third to half of both job categories. Id. at 21.  With a readily available pool of substitutes to have the same tasks performed during the absence of the employee, the argument of undue burden failed. Id. at 21-22. Finally, the court rejected the argument that a voluntary self-termination and rehire process could reasonably accommodate any employee because each employee requesting unpaid leave for religious reasons would have to "sacrifice their jobs to observe their religious practices."  Id. at 22.

In sum, the Adeyeye opinion informs all employers to deliberately consider requests from employees for unpaid leave based on stated reasons that relate to religious beliefs that fall anywhere along the broad spectrum of worldwide religious beliefs, customs, practices, and systems. Globalization, along with Title VII, requires employers to try to reasonably accommodate the broad spectrum of beliefs in a fact-specific manner tied to the economic realities of each individual workplace.  

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