The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on March 9, 2018 which provides guidance to employers on their duty to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees. See Patterson v. Walgreen Co., No. 16-16923, 2018 WL 1224391 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2018). Darrell Patterson is a Seventh Day Adventist, and his beliefs prohibit him from working during his Sabbath — sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. He was hired by Walgreens as a customer care representative, and Walgreens initially accommodated his beliefs.
Patterson was promoted a number of times and became a training instructor. The training classes he taught were regularly scheduled between Sunday and Thursday, but sometimes emergency trainings were needed on Friday nights or Saturdays. In those circumstances, Walgreens allowed Patterson to swap shifts with other available trainers. But, when Patterson could not find a replacement, he was disciplined. In 2011, Walgreens scheduled Patterson for an emergency training on Saturday. Patterson asked another training instructor to cover for him, but that trainer was not available. Patterson did not ask several other employees about their availability to cover for him.
Patterson met with Walgreen’s Human Resources representative the next week. That representative suggested that he return to a prior position as a customer care representative or look for another job at Walgreens that had a large employee pool from which Patterson could find employees willing to switch shifts. Patterson refused unless he received a guarantee that he would not have to work on his Sabbath. Walgreens terminated his employment because of his refusal to work on the Sabbath and his refusal to look for another position with more likely availability.
The analysis of religious accommodation cases is similar to other discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An employee establishes a prima facie case of discrimination by showing: (1) he had a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement; (2) he informed his employer of that belief; and, (3) he was discharged for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate that it either offered the employee a reasonable accommodation or could not do so without undue hardship.
The Eleventh Circuit’s Patterson decision focused on the reasonable accommodation offered by Walgreens. The court found that “[a]n employer may be able to satisfy its obligations involving an employee’s Sabbath observance by allowing the employee to swap shifts with other employees, or by encouraging the employee to obtain other employment within the company that will make it easier for the employee to swap shifts and offering to help him find another position.” Patterson, 2017 WL 1224391 at *3. Importantly, Walgreens was only required to make shift swapping available — if Patterson could find another employee to swap. Walgreens was not required to guarantee a shift swap. “Walgreens was not required to ensure that Patterson was able to swap his shift, nor was it required to order another employee to work in his place.” Id. at *4.
The Court further found that Walgreens’ offer to allow a transfer to a customer care representative position was also a reasonable accommodation, and that Patterson “had a duty to make a good faith attempt to accommodate his religious needs through the means offered by Walgreens.” Id.
The Patterson decision is useful for Alabama employers. It firmly establishes that the duty to accommodate an employee’s Sabbath observance is not unlimited. In most circumstances, offering the employee the ability to swap shifts should suffice. Nevertheless, every situation is unique and employers should proceed cautiously if they are contemplating taking an employment action based upon a Sabbath observance or other religious belief.