Groff v. DeJoy: “Undue Hardship” in Religious Discrimination Cases
In Groff v. DeJoy,  the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that an employer that denies an employee’s religious accommodation request on “undue hardship” grounds must be able to show – in order to avoid liability on Title VII discrimination claims – that “the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Although the Supreme Court framed its holding as a clarification of applicable law, its decision effectively creates a higher standard for employers seeking to invoke the undue hardship defense.
Legal and Factual Background
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
In the absence of a statutory definition of “undue hardship,” many courts have relied for decades on Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison,  a religious accommodation case in which the Supreme Court stated: “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”
In Groff, the plaintiff – an evangelical Christian and former mail carrier for the United States Postal Service (USPS) at a rural USPS station – claimed that his request for a religious accommodation not to work Sunday shifts had been unlawfully denied. (Sunday work was scheduled after his USPS office had agreed to deliver packages for Amazon.)
Groff sued in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleging that the USPS had failed to reasonably accommodate his religious practices in violation of Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the USPS, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, finding that exempting Groff from working on Sundays entailed more than a de minimis cost, because the requested accommodation “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” 
The Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court recognized in Groff that many lower courts, citing Hardison, have interpreted “undue hardship” to mean any effort or cost that meets a “more than de minimis” threshold. But according to the Supreme Court, such narrow interpretations are mistaken, since Hardison’s and Title VII’s governing standard for “undue hardship” cannot be reduced to the isolated phrase “more than a de minimis cost.” Such a reading, the Supreme Court said, improperly suggests that only a very small or trifling cost could suffice. It further said that the better understanding of Title VII and Hardison, including based on that case’s embedded references to “substantial” expenditures or costs, is that they “mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”
The Supreme Court threw out the summary judgment ruling against Groff, since the Third Circuit had applied the incorrect, more-than-de-minimis test.
Noting that its “substantial increased costs” standard will necessarily be fact-specific, the Supreme Court remanded Groff’s case to the District Court for application of that standard to the facts at issue. The Supreme Court explained, however, that “courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer.”
The Supreme Court also opined on two related issues. First, it confirmed that not all impacts on coworkers may be considered relevant in determining undue hardship – specifically, a coworker’s bias against or animosity “to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice” cannot be a legitimate factor. Second, it stressed that Title VII “requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations.” Consequently, when faced with accommodation requests, employers must do more than “conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options” – possibly, the Court suggested with respect to the Groff case, offering incentive pay to other employees to work on Sunday, or coordinating with nearby offices to help deliver on Sundays – “would also be necessary.”
Groff effectively heightens the standard that employers must meet in order to defend against Title VII religious discrimination claims for failure to accommodate. Costs or burdens that are merely more than de minimis no longer suffice.
The Supreme Court’s decision provides little practical guidance on the specifics of what constitutes “substantial increased costs.” That will involve context-specific determinations. But employers should generally be prepared to conduct more rigorous assessments of any religious accommodation requests from employees, and should be prepared to very carefully and flexibly consider a wide range of possible accommodations.
Finally, employers should also consider reevaluating applicable policies and procedures; reinforcing training of managers and HR professionals; and consulting with counsel to help understand Groff’s implications for their particular businesses.
 No. 22-174, 2023 WL 4239256 (June 29, 2023).
 432 U.S. 63 (1977).
 35 F.4th 162 (3d Cir. 2022).
This article is intended as a general discussion of these issues only and is not to be considered legal advice or relied upon. For more information, please contact RPJ Attorney Gregory Feit who counsels clients on employment law, litigation, arbitration, negotiation, and trial advocacy. Mr. Feit served is admitted to practice in New York.