Articles Posted in Reasonable Accommodation

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ____ (2015), the United States Supreme Court delivered the straight-forward rule that employers “may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

In this case, Abercrombie refused to hire a young Muslim woman named Samantha Elauf to work in one of its retail clothing stores because Ms. Elauf wore a headscarf. Abercrombie suspected that Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf in observance of her Muslim faith and simply did not want to accommodate the headscarf, claiming that it would violate the company’s “look policy” (which forbade employees from wearing “caps”). When the EEOC sued Abercrombie on behalf of Ms. Elauf for failing to make a reasonable accommodation for her religion, the company defended its actions by arguing that it did not “actually know” that the headscarf was a religious practice – it merely suspected that it was a religious practice. In other words, Abercrombie made the absurd argument that even though it actually believed the headscarf was a religious practice and the headscarf was indeed a religious practice, the company should nevertheless be allowed to discriminate against Ms. Elauf because Ms. Elauf did not specifically tell the company that the headscarf was a religious practice.

Luckily, the U.S. Supreme Court did not buy Abercrombie’s argument. The Court’s decision makes it clear that employers may not make employment decisions that are “motivated” by someone’s actual religious beliefs or practices, nor can it refuse to make reasonable accommodations for such religious practices, by simply claiming that the employee (or job applicant) never explicitly confirmed the company’s suspicions regarding their religious beliefs or practices.

The best that can be said about Smith v. Clark County School District (9th Cir 2013) 727 F.3d 950, as well as all the case law examining whether what an employee said on his or her disability application bars a claim for disability discrimination/failure to accommodate, is: BE CAREFUL! Anything you say can and will be used against you. However, as explained by the Ninth Circuit in Smith , if what you say can be interpreted in more than one way, this is a question for the jury.

Ms. Smith worked as a literacy specialist at a school district. She had a back injury that limited her mobility. When her principal informed her that she was being assigned to teach kindergarten for the next academic year, she told the principal that her back injury prevented her from doing so. Thereinafter, Ms. Smith aggravated her back injury, and was off work totally until the end of the academic year. She applied for disability benefits and family leave.

Ms. Smith filed a claim for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The employer-school district filed for summary judgment.