Hold the Phone

U.S. appeals panel overturns lower court ruling that Tennessee-Knoxville acted legally in firing Seventh-day Adventist employee who declined to monitor emergency help line during her Sabbath.

July 25, 2012

Like many colleges and universities that send undergraduates abroad to study, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville takes their health and safety seriously, and has an emergency line for students that the coordinators of its Programs Abroad Office monitor 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That was a problem for Kimberly Crider, who, as a new coordinator in the office in May 2008, told her supervisor that her membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church prevented her from working from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. After two months of back-and-forth between Crider and her managers over possible alternatives, the university fired her in June 2008.

Crider sued the university for religious discrimination later that year, saying that Tennessee officials had not taken reasonable steps under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to accommodate her. (The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations -- in ways that do not cause "undue hardship" on the employer’s business, for the religious practices of its employees.) A federal court last year backed the university's request for a summary judgment, saying that while Crider had provided evidence that the university had discriminated based on her religion, "the university also met its burden of showing that it cannot reasonably accommodate Crider without incurring undue hardship."

But Crider appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and in its ruling on Tuesday, a divided three-judge panel reversed the lower court's ruling, saying that it had erred in concluding (without a full trial) that Tennessee had reasonably accommodated her or that accommodating would cause too much hardship. (A third judge dissented, saying he believed the university had proven its case.)

As the court tells it, based on facts that are not in dispute, Crider proposed a new schedule in which she would be on call more total days than the other two coordinators, but they would carry a heavier burden on weekends. Her supervisor ran that plan by the other two coordinators (who until Crider's hiring had been solely responsible for monitoring the emergency line), but they demurred, saying such an arrangement would make it impossible for them to "disengage" from work.

The supervisor asked Crider  if she would carry the phone on weekends if the other coordinators were out of town or had emergencies, and Crider said she would not monitor the line on the Sabbath. Crider's other suggestions -- that the supervisor or campus police monitor the line until a planned fourth coordinator was hired -- were also deemed unacceptable, the court said.

An employee seeking religious accommodation is required to cooperate with his or her employee's attempts at accommodation, but "cooperation is not synonymous with compromise, where such compromise would be in violation of the employees’ religious needs," the Sixth Circuit said. "Offering Crider fewer Saturday shifts is not a reasonable accommodation to religious beliefs which prohibit working on Saturdays."

Having raised doubts about whether Tennessee reasonably accommodated Crider, the court then asked whether the university's reason for declining to do so -- the burdens that accommodating her would impose on other workers -- rose to the level of "undue hardship." One of her co-workers reportedly threatened to quit if she had to carry the phone every other weekend, the Sixth Circuit notes. (The lower court deemed that it did, citing a 1977 Supreme Court decision involving changing one worker's shifts to accommodate another's religious needs).

"The district court heavily relied on [the 1977 decision] in determining that UTK would incur an undue hardship if it were required to force [Crider's co-workers] to resume responsibility of carrying the emergency phone every other weekend," the Sixth Circuit majority wrote. But the university "seems to twist the district court’s finding and the [1977] decision by insisting that a significant effect on a co-worker will suffice to establish an undue hardship. This is an inaccurate reading of the [1977] holding... Title VII does not exempt accommodation which creates undue hardship on the employees; it requires reasonable accommodation “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

The Sixth Circuit did not conclude that it would be impossible for Tennessee to meet that standard -- only that it had not done so yet, so that the lower court's decision to dismiss the case was premature.

"We conclude, therefore, that the existence of genuine issues of material fact as to both the reasonableness of the accommodation UTK provided Crider and UTK’s ability to reasonably accommodate her without undue hardship preclude summary judgment," the Sixth Circuit decision states.


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