Employment Law Update: June 1, 2015: United States Supreme Court decides EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.; applies a “motivating factor” rather than “actual knowledge” standard in a Title VII claim with respect to a prospective employee’s need for a religious accommodation

In 2008, Abercrombie and Fitch declined to hire Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, because her black headscarf did not comply with the company’s “Look Policy.”  Elauf wore the headscarf, which she wears for religious reasons, to her interview for a position at an Abercrombie store.  During her interview, the company’s Look Policy was discussed, which prohibits employees from wearing caps or other types of headwear.  However, Elauf’s reason for wearing the headscarf, the applicability of the Look Policy to her headscarf, or the need for an accommodation, were not discussed or mentioned.  Abercrombie admitted that it assumed or suspected that Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons, and ultimately, declined to hire Elauf because the fact that she wore a headscarf conflicted with the company’s Look Policy and prohibition against caps and other headwear.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) filed suit against Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf, claiming that the company’s refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, in part, prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s religious practices when the practice could be accommodated without undue hardship.  Abercrombie argued in part that there was no Title VII violation because it lacked “actual knowledge” that Elauf required an accommodation since no such accommodation was requested by Elauf.  The EEOC prevailed at the District Court level, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, and found 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.

However, in its June 1, 2015 decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Tenth Circuit, and held that in order to prevail on such a claim under Title VII, an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had actual knowledge of his need for the accommodation.  In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court specifically found that liability under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice does not include an actual knowledge requirement on the part of the employer.  Thus, rather than imposing an actual knowledge standard, the Supreme Court held that Title VII prohibits certain motives, regardless of the employer’s actual knowledge.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that an employer cannot make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.

For more information on the provisions of Title VII, and how this decision may affect you as an employer or employee, or any other employment law issues, please contact Peter K. Wilson, Bernard K. Weiler, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: pkw@mickeywilson.com; bkw@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com

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