The Supreme Court's Decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie: What Can Employers Do to Reduce the Risk of Religious Discrimination Claims in the Hiring Process?

June 1, 2015

By: Subhash Viswanathan

On June 1, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 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, even if the applicant has not actually informed the prospective employer of the need for a religious accommodation.  The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals granting summary judgment in favor of Abercrombie, and remanded the case back to the Tenth Circuit for further consideration. The Facts In reviewing the Tenth Circuit's decision granting summary judgment to Abercrombie, the Supreme Court considered the facts in the light most favorable to the EEOC.  The Supreme Court summarized those facts as follows. At the time this case arose in 2008, Abercrombie had a Look Policy that governed its employees' clothing and appearance while at work.  The Look Policy prohibited employees from wearing "caps," but did not define the term "caps." An applicant named Samantha Elauf applied for a position in an Abercrombie store, and wore a headscarf to her interview with the store's assistant manager.  During the interview, Elauf did not comment on (and the assistant manager did not ask any questions about) the headscarf or the reasons why she wore the headscarf.  The assistant manager gave Elauf a rating after the interview that qualified her to be hired, but the assistant manager was concerned that Elauf's headscarf would conflict with the store's Look Policy. The assistant manager sought clarification from the district manager regarding whether the headscarf would be considered a "cap" that was prohibited by the Look Policy.  In making the inquiry to the district manager, the assistant manager stated that she believed Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons.  The district manager told the assistant manager that the headscarf would violate the Look Policy and directed the assistant manager not to hire Elauf. Although Abercrombie did not know this for sure at the time it made the decision, Elauf was a practicing Muslim who wore the headscarf for religious reasons.  Elauf filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, and the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Abercrombie on Elauf's behalf, alleging that Abercrombie's decision not to hire Elauf violated Title VII. The Lower Court Decisions The District Court granted summary judgment to the EEOC on the issue of liability, and awarded $20,000 to Elauf after a trial on damages. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court and granted summary judgment to Abercrombie.  The Tenth Circuit reasoned that Abercrombie could not be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate Elauf's religious practice unless Elauf provided Abercrombie with actual knowledge of her need for a religious accommodation.  Because it was undisputed that Elauf did not make any request for a religious accommodation, the Tenth Circuit found that Abercrombie did not violate Title VII. The Supreme Court's Decision The Supreme Court disagreed with the Tenth Circuit's holding that an employer must have actual knowledge of an applicant's need for a religious accommodation in order to establish that the employer violated Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid making a religious accommodation.  The Supreme Court held that an applicant need only demonstrate that his or her need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision. The Supreme Court explained the difference between motive and knowledge as follows:  "An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive.  Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed." Considering the facts in the light most favorable to the EEOC and Elauf, the Supreme Court concluded that the Tenth Circuit's decision should be reversed because Abercrombie's assistant manager at least suspected that Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons, and Abercrombie's district manager directed that Elauf not be hired because the headscarf violated the Look Policy.  On remand, the lower courts will need to determine whether there are genuine disputes regarding these material facts and whether a trial will be necessary on these issues. What Can Employers Do to Minimize the Risk of Religious Discrimination Claims in the Hiring Process? Many employers delegate responsibility for hiring new employees to managers without providing adequate guidance or training regarding how to carry out that important responsibility.  All personnel who have responsibility for interviewing and making hiring decisions should be trained regularly regarding compliance with anti-discrimination laws and employer policies.  The training should include, at a minimum, a review of lawful vs. unlawful pre-employment inquiries, a review of what information may and may not be considered as part of the hiring process, and the employer's obligations to make accommodations for religious observances or practices if the accommodations can be provided without undue hardship. If the hiring manager believes that an applicant's clothing or appearance during the interview might conflict with the employer's dress code, the hiring manager should still refrain from making any inquiries about whether the applicant's clothing or appearance is for religious reasons.  If the hiring manager feels that the applicant is a good candidate for the position in all other respects and is seriously considering extending an offer to the applicant, one way to address the potential dress code concern would be to show the applicant a copy of the employer's dress code and ask the applicant whether he or she can comply with the dress code, either with or without an accommodation.  If the applicant states that an accommodation would be needed, the employer can begin the process of determining whether the requested accommodation can be provided without undue hardship.  However, if the hiring manager has other legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for rejecting an applicant that have nothing to do with concerns about the applicant's ability to comply with the employer's dress code or potential religious accommodations, the hiring manager should not make any inquiries during the interview regarding the applicant's ability to comply with the dress code. Finally, as in all other aspects of employment law, documentation is critical.  All hiring managers should be directed to take and maintain detailed notes of their interviews with job applicants and to document the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for hiring one candidate over another.  If a religious accommodation is requested by an applicant, the employer should keep documentation of the request, any information provided by the applicant regarding the religious practice for which an accommodation is requested, and the decision regarding whether or not the requested accommodation can be provided without undue hardship.