The case went to a jury trial and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the EEOC, finding that the company was liable for failing to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs. The jury made findings as to each of the three elements of a Title VII reasonable accommodation claim: that the employee had sincere religious beliefs in conflict with the employer’s requirement that he use the hand scanner; that the employee had informed the business of this conflict; and that the employer constructively discharged him for his refusal to comply with its directions.
Although the federal district court did not permit punitive damages, it awarded the employee $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits, and issued a permanent injunction against the employer, requiring it to refrain from future violations of Title VII’s reasonable accommodation provision and to provide management training on religious accommodations.
The employer appealed but the Appellate Court agreed with the lower court rulings.
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The employee prayed about his dilemma but still believed that it interfered with his religious beliefs. The employer advised him that disciplinary procedures would be enforced against him if he refused to scan his left hand, and the employee retired under protest.
He filed a charge of religious discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and they not only found cause to believe that workplace discrimination took place, but also filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the business violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs and constructively discharging him. It sought compensatory and punitive damages, back and front pay and lost benefits, and injunctive relief. United States EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2017).
The employee met with a human resources supervisor and discussed his objection to the hand scanner and even provided a letter from his pastor. Unaware of any other means of accommodating his religious concerns, the employee offered to check in with his shift supervisor or to punch in on a time clock, as he had in the past.
The HR supervisor responded to the employee by providing him with a letter written by the scanner’s manufacturer, offering assurances that the scanner cannot detect or place a mark (including the Mark of the Beast) on the body of a person. Offering its own interpretation of “[t]he Scriptures,” the letter explained that because the Mark of the Beast is associated only with the right hand or the forehead, use of the left hand in the scanner would be sufficient to obviate any religious concerns regarding the system.
Recently an employer implemented a biometric hand-scanner system, in order to better monitor the attendance and work hours of its employees. The scanner system required each employee checking in or out of a shift to scan his or her right hand; the shape of the right hand was then linked to the worker’s unique personnel number. As compared to the previous system, in which the shift foreman manually tracked the time worked by employees, the scanner was thought to allow for more accurate and efficient reporting.
One religious employee had an understanding of the biblical Book of Revelation where the Mark of the Beast brands followers of the Antichrist, allowing the Antichrist to manipulate them. That employee believed that the use of the employer’s hand scanning system would result in being so “marked.”
The employer’s core defense was:
The Appellate Court determined that there was ample evidence from which a jury could conclude that the employee sincerely believed “participation in this system” — with or without a tangible mark — “was a showing of allegiance to the Antichrist,” inconsistent with his deepest religious convictions.
The Appellate Court cautioned employers with the warning:
“It is not [the company]’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the employee]’s religious understandings.”
This case did not involve a situation where the employer claimed that the requested accommodation would not be feasible, and would instead impose an “undue hardship” on its operations. In this case, there was evidence that at roughly the same time, and unbeknownst to the religious employee, the employer was providing an accommodation to other employees that allowed them to bypass the new scanner system altogether. Specifically, the company had determined that two employees with hand injuries, who could not be enrolled through a scan of either hand, instead could enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system. A trial witness testified that this accommodation imposed no additional cost or burden on the company, and allowing the religious employee to use the keypad procedure would have been similarly cost-free.
Nevertheless, the company continued to resist making the same accommodation for the religious employee, and instead decided that he would be required to scan his left hand. The disparity in treatment was highlighted by a single email that simultaneously authorizing the keypad accommodation for the two employees with physical injuries and denying that accommodation to the religious employee: “[L]et’s make our religious objector use his left hand.”
This case reminds Florida employers that there is a duty of reasonable accommodation that applies in situations of religious accommodation. Rather than challenging whether an employee is properly reading the Bible, employers must only determine whether the employee has a sincere religious belief and if so, it should undertake the process of determining whether it can make a reasonable accommodation.
If you need any assistance in handling employee requests for accommodations concerning your Florida business, please promptly email or call the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. at 1-772-465-5111.
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