Supreme Court Rules Employer Violates Title VII If An Applicant’s Need For A Religious Accommodation Was a Motivating Factor In The Employer’s Decision, Whether Or Not The Employer Had Actual Knowledge of the Need for An Accommodation

June 2, 2015 | Bulletin No. 1261292.1

The Supreme Court, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie and Fitch Stores, Inc. held that, to prevail in a disparate treatment claim alleging discrimination on religious grounds, the applicant need only prove that their need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of their need for a religious accommodation.


Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. operates a line of clothing stores.   The company imposes a "Look Policy" that governs its employees' dress, and includes a prohibition on "caps."  The term "caps" is not defined in the policy. Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, applied for a position in an Abercrombie store.  As part of her religious observance, Ms. Elauf wears a headscarf.  Ms. Elauf was interviewed for the position by the store’s assistant manager.   The store’s assistant manager gave Ms. Elauf a rating that would qualify her to be hired but expressed concern her headscarf would conflict with the Look Policy.  The assistant manager contacted the district manager and communicated her concerns, including her belief that Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf as a religious observance.  The district manager instructed her not to hire Ms. Elauf, as the headscarf would violate the Look Policy.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission sued Abercrombie on Elauf's behalf, alleging that Abercrombie's refusal to hire her violated Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the EEOC.  The Tenth Circuit reversed that decision and granted Abercrombie summary judgment.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari and heard the case.


The disparate treatment provisions of Title VII forbid employers to fail to hire an applicant because of that individual’s religion.   The parties agreed that Ms. Elauf’s wearing of a headscarf was a religious practice.   Per existing law, an individual's religion or religious practice cannot be a motivating factor in failing to hire.  Title VII does not, however, impose a knowledge requirement.  The Supreme Court stated, "If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice and the employer’s desire to avoid the proposed accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII."  However, it is not required that the employer know that the employee needs the accommodation.  If the employer has a suspicion or belief that the accommodation may be needed and fails to hire the applicant to avoid having to provide the accommodation, the employer has discriminated on the basis of religion and violated Title VII.   Furthermore, just having a "neutral" policy is not sufficient.  The Supreme Court held that it is necessary for otherwise neutral policies to adapt to the need for accommodation. 


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