Employment Law Report

Employers Must Accommodate Religious Practices Even Without Actual Knowledge: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015)

By Chelsea K. Painter

Supreme CourtClothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch (“Abercrombie”) refused to hire Samantha Elauf (“Elauf”), a practicing Muslim, because the headscarf required by her religion violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” prohibiting “caps” of any kind. Although Elauf’s interviewer informed the store manager that she believed “Elauf wore her headscarf because of her faith,” the store manager directed her not to hire Elauf. Elauf did not mention her faith and/or religion to her interviewer or the store manager prior to their decision.  After Abercrombie refused to hire Elauf, the EEOC sued Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf, claiming religious discrimination under Title VII. The District Court granted the EEOC summary judgment on the issue of liability and awarded $20,000. The Tenth Circuit reversed and awarded Abercrombie summary judgment, concluding that “an employer cannot be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice until the applicant (or employee) provides the employer with actual knowledge of his need for an accommodation.” The Supreme Court reversed.

Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate a “religious observance or practice” if they can do so without “undue hardship.” Abercrombie argued that an applicant cannot show disparate treatment under Title VII without showing that the employer had “actual knowledge” of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that an applicant “need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” The Supreme Court held that Title VII requires that “an individual’s actual religious practice may not be a motivating factor” in refusing to hire. Furthermore, Title VII does not impose a knowledge requirement. Consequently, an employer may violate Title VII “even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion” regarding the applicant’s religious practice. The Supreme Court reasoned that because Title VII prohibits “actions taken with the motive of avoiding the need for accommodating a religious practice,” a request for an accommodation or the employer’s certainty of the religious practice is not a necessary condition.   Lastly, the Supreme Court rejected Abercrombie’s argument that a neutral “no cap” policy cannot constitute “intentional discrimination” because “Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give away to the need for an accommodation.”