Minnesota Federal Court: Requesting Religious Accommodation Not Protected Activity Under Title VII

Lev Craig

Last week, on July 6, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota granted summary judgment in favor of defendant in EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, finding that a Minnesota hospital had not violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) when it withdrew a nurse’s conditional employment offer after she requested a religious accommodation. The court held that the act of requesting a reasonable accommodation did not, in and of itself, constitute protected activity under Title VII. Consequently, North Memorial’s withdrawal of plaintiff’s job offer, as a matter of law, could never give rise to a Title VII retaliation claim. This decision contradicts the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance, which includes requests for religious accommodations as protected activity.

Emily Sure-Ondara, the plaintiff in North Memorial, is a nurse and a practicing Seventh Day Adventist (a Protestant Christian denomination). In November 2013, Sure-Ondara was recruited for a registered nurse position at North Memorial. She applied for the job, and, after a series of successful interviews, North Memorial extended her a conditional offer of employment. According to the terms of the conditional job offer, Sure-Ondara was scheduled to work the night shift—11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.—and weekends, every other weekend.

Upon receiving her proposed schedule, Sure-Ondara contacted North Memorial’s Human Resources (HR) to request a religious accommodation. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Ms. Sure-Ondara observes the Sabbath on Saturdays and was consequently not able to work on Friday nights due to her religious obligations. HR responded that the North Memorial union agreement required all nurses to work every other weekend and that, if Sure-Ondara would not be able to work the proposed schedule, the hospital might “need to offer the position to another candidate.” Sure-Ondara told HR that she would “make it work” and offered to either trade her Friday night shifts with another nurse or—if she could not find a substitute—come in to work anyway, despite her religious obligations.

North Memorial ultimately rejected Sure-Ondara’s proposed solutions, and, approximately a week after her accommodation request, rescinded her employment offer on the grounds that “granting her request was not feasible” and that North Memorial was “also concerned that she would not show up for her Friday night shift.” In December 2013, Sure-Ondara filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which brought suit on her behalf in federal court. North Memorial moved for summary judgment on all of her claims.

At issue was whether an employee’s request for a religious accommodation constitutes protected activity under Title VII. After finding no circuit precedent specifically addressing the question, the District of Minnesota looked to the plain text of Title VII: A plaintiff may bring a Title VII retaliation claim if an employer takes an adverse employment action against her because she has (1) “opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII]” or (2) “made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII].” These provisions are called the “opposition clause” and “participation clause,” respectively.

The District of Minnesota found that Sure-Ondara could not meet either requirement. With regards to the opposition clause, the court wrote that “[m]erely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation.” That is, if Sure-Ondara had complained about the denied accommodation, she would have engaged in protected activity, but, having only requested the accommodation, she had not. Nor did Sure-Ondara’s request for a religious accommodation fall under the participation clause, since there was “no evidence that Sure-Ondara ‘made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing’ prior to her termination.”

In its opposition to North Memorial’s motion for summary judgment, the EEOC urged the court to look to the case law supporting retaliation claims involving requests for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the court was not persuaded, pointing to the ADA’s interference provision—under which an employer may not “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with” an employee in their exercise of ADA-protected rights—as a key difference between the two statutes. The interference provision of the ADA, the court found, allows the ADA’s protections to be applied to a “broader range of activity” than those of Title VII. “If Congress wishes to extend the same protection to activity under Title VII, it is free to do so,” the court added, “but it is not appropriate for the court to manipulate the plain language of the statute to dictate policy outcomes.”

If your employer has discriminated against you based on your religion, including denying you a reasonable accommodation for your religious beliefs, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.