Federal Judge Finds That Religious Accommodation Request Is Not Protected Activity Under Title VII
On July 7, 2017, U.S. District Judge David Doty of the District of Minnesota issued an order granting summary in favor of North Memorial Health Care (“NMHC”), in which the court dismissed an Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEOC”) suit alleging that NMHC retaliated against a prospective nurse based on her religion.
In November 2013, Emily Sure-Ondara, a Seventh Day Adventist, applied to a nurse residency program at NMHC that would have required her to work every other weekend. After NMHC extended a conditional offer of employment, Sure-Ondara informed NMHC that she could not work from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays for religious reasons and would need an accommodation. NMHC then explained to Sure-Ondara that the terms of employment required her to work every other weekend and that, if she was unable to commit to the schedule, then NMHC may need to offer the position to another candidate. Sure-Ondara responded that she would “make it work” and would either find a substitute for her weekend shifts or work if she could not find anyone to cover for her. Eight days after extending the job offer, NMHC rescinded it because they concluded her request for an accommodation was not feasible. NMHC’s letter to Sure-Ondara rescinding the offer also stated that NMHC was willing to consider her for other positions.
In December 2013, Sure-Ondara filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that NMHC engaged in religious discrimination, discriminated against her for being pregnant, and retaliated against her for requesting a religious accommodation. After concluding its investigation, the EEOC decided there was insufficient basis for Sure-Ondara’s religious and pregnancy discrimination claims, but determined her claim for retaliation was actionable. In September 2015, the EEOC sued NMHC on behalf of Sure-Ondara alleging NMHC illegally retaliated against her for requesting a religious accommodation.
In ruling on NMHC’s motion for summary judgment, the court explained that for the EEOC to succeed on its claim of retaliation, it must show that (1) Sure-Ondara engaged in protected conduct, (2) she suffered an employment action that would dissuade a reasonable employee from making a charge of discrimination, and (3) there was a causal connection between the two. The court held that NMHC was entitled to summary judgment because requesting a religious accommodation itself is not protected conduct. The court held that “[m]erely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation,” and that “[t]here is no evidence that Sure-Ondara believed that North Memorial’s denial of her religious accommodation request was unlawful. And even if she did, she did not communicate that belief to North Memorial.” The court did acknowledge that a few other courts have held that requesting an accommodation itself is protected activity, but found those cases unpersuasive.
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