In a ruling issued Wednesday morning, January 17, 2018, the Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment for Kellogg’s, sending a Sabbath discrimination case back to the lower court for trial.
Richard Tabura and Guadalupe Diaz worked at a Morningstar Farms plant in Clearfield, Utah, until they were both fired in 2012 for accumulating attendance points, largely on account of their Sabbath observance.
Kellogg’s had argued that their religion-neutral scheduling system, which permitted employees to use vacation or sick leave or to find swaps to obtain religious accommodation, satisfied its legal obligation. The Appellate Court rejected that argument. The Court concluded that “an employer cannot take refuge behind a neutral policy if something more is required reasonably to accommodate a religious need.” Even so, the Court declined to adopt a “per se” rule that a reasonable religious accommodation must “eliminate” the conflict between the religious practice and the job requirement. As a practical matter, the decision makes it very difficult for employers in future cases to avoid jury trials on the reasonableness of any accommodation. The Court clearly said: “Determining what is reasonable is a fact-specific determination that must be made on a case-by-case basis.” Fact determinations are reserved for the jury.
The Court also expressed doubt about Kellogg’s claim that providing the accommodation would result in an undue hardship, citing the lack of evidence in the record. The Court reminded Kellogg’s that it had the legal burden to prove undue hardship.
The case was filed by the Church State Council, with local counsel Eric Strindberg of the law firm of Strindberg & Scholnick. Appellate expert Gene Schaerr handled the appeal on behalf of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.