Supreme Court Rules for EEOC in Abercrombie Dress Code Case

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Employers must now use more caution when their dress codes clash with their employees’ religious beliefs. That is the result of the United States Supreme Court’s June 1, 2015 ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

The case arose after Samantha Elauf applied for a job with Abercrombie. Elauf is a practicing Muslim who, consistent with her understanding of her religion’s requirements, wears a headscarf known as a hijab. The Abercrombie dress code included a “look” policy that prohibited employees from wearing “caps” as being too informal for work attire. The policy did not define “caps.”

After an interview, the assistant store manager rated Elauf as qualified to be hired, but she was concerned that the headscarf would violate the company’s “look” policy. Elauf, however, never requested an exception to that policy so that she could wear the hijab. The assistant manager asked her district manager for guidance, and she told the district manager that she believed Elauf wore the headscarf because of her faith. The district manager said the headscarf would violate the look policy, and he directed the assistant store manager to not hire Elauf.

The EEOC then sued Abercrombie on behalf of Elauf on the basis that the company’s refusal to hire Elauf violated the religious discrimination prohibitions of Title VII. The trial court ruled in favor of the EEOC (See Abercrombie & Fitch Dressed Down over Hijab in Religious Discrimination Case). The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the basis that because Elauf never provided Abercrombie with actual notice of her need for accommodation of her religious belief, Abercrombie could not be liable under Title VII.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the EEOC and trial court. Specifically, the high court ruled that to prove a claim of religious discrimination in the workplace, an applicant need only show only that his/her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer knew of the need. An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.

Thus, even if an employee or applicant has not requested a religious accommodation (for example, a dress code or grooming policy exception, schedule modification, etc.), an employer must not use that person’s religious faith as a factor in making decisions about the employee or applicant. In addition, employers should keep their dress and grooming codes somewhat flexible to allow for the accommodation of affected religious beliefs.

For more information, contact Swenson Lervick’s MSBA-certified Labor and Employment Law Specialist, Tom Jacobson, or check out the EEOC’s publication, Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace and Fact Sheet on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2015 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA

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