Tuesday, February 12, 2008, 1:16 PM

Fourth Circuit Rules For Employer (And Against EEOC) In Title VII Case

Yesterday in EEOC v. Firestone Fibers & Textiles Co. the Fourth Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Wilkinson, upheld summary judgment for Firestone in a Title VII dispute over whether Firestone reasonably accommodated an employee's religious beliefs. The case arises from the Western District of North Carolina (Judge Conrad). It's an important case discussing and applying Title VII's "reasonable accommodation" standard.

The employee, who worked in Firestone plants in N.C., is a member of the Living Church of God. The religion requires him to observe (and not work during) the faith's weekly Sabbath (sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday) plus seven sets of religious holidays. The employee was assigned to a shift that conflicted with his religious obligations, and he couldn't observe all religious holidays without violating Firestone's attendance policy. Firestone concluded it couldn't make any special accomodation, because to do so would violate the collective bargaining agreement (by bumping a more senior employee in favor of this less senior employee) or would impose a burden on coworkers (who would have to work overtime to cover his shift). After the employee exhausted his allotted vacation days and floating holidays, he requested permission to take an unpaid leave of absence to observe religious holidays. Firestone declined his request. When he failed to report to work, he was terminated.

The Fourth Circuit rejected the EEOC's argument that Title VII requires an employer, absent undue hardship, to completely accommodate an employee's religious observances. The Court stressed that Congress chose to provide for "reasonable accommodation," not "total accommodation." "A duty of 'reasonableness' cannot be read as an invariable duty to eliminate the conflict between workplace rules and religious practice," the Court said, and considering an accomodation's impact on both the employer and coworkers is appropriate when determining its reasonableness. The Court ultimately held that the employee's proposed accommodations weren't reasonable. Thus, Firestone was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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