Case Summary and Outcome
After Abercrombie & Fitch did not hire Samantha Elauf because her religious headscarf violated the company’s dress code, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Abercrombie. The Supreme Court of the United States rejected Abercrombie’s arguments that it had not violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because Elauf had not shown Abercrombie’s “actual knowledge” of her need for accommodation, as the need for an accommodation need only be a motivating factor in an employer’s decision.
Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (Abercrombie), a retail clothing company, did not hire prospective employee Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf known as a hijab. Her headscarf, as well as other “caps,” violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” governing employee dress.
On Elauf’s behalf, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a claim that Abercrombie violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court found in favor of the EEOC, awarding Elauf damages. The Tenth Circuit Court later reversed by granting Abercrombie summary judgment, holding that liability for failure to accommodate only attaches after the prospective employee request accommodation from the employer.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer cannot decline to hire a prospective employee in an attempt to avoid accommodating the prospective employee’s religious practice, assuming the employer could accommodate without undue hardship. In this case, the Supreme Court of the United States considered whether Title VII’s limitation on employers is only triggered when the prospective employee has notified the employer of the need for accommodation.
Abercrombie argued that a prospective employee must show the employer’s “actual knowledge” of the need for accommodation before arguing there was disparate treatment. The Court rejected this argument, instead saying that the prospective employee need only show that the employer’s hiring decision was motivated by the need for accommodation. “The disparate-treatment provision forbids employers to: (1) ‘fail … to hire’ an applicant (2) ‘because of’ (3) ‘such individual’s … religion’ (which includes his religious practice).”
Because both parties concede that Elauf wore her headscarf as part of her “religious practice,” the Court only needed to evaluate if Abercrombie had failed to hire her “because of” this practice. The Court noted that Title VII does not have a knowledge requirement, unlike other antidiscrimination statutes. Instead, certain motives are prohibited irrespective of the employer’s knowledge.
Abercrombie argued that parties must raise failure to accommodate claims as disparate-impact, rather than disparate-treatment. The Court rejected this argument because Title VII defines “religion” to include both belief and practice. Thus, religious practices are protected and must be accommodated. Abercrombie also argued that neutral polices cannot qualify as “intentional discrimination.” However, as the Court pointed out, Title VII bestows upon employers an affirmative obligation to accommodate and not to refuse or fail to hire an employee because of his or her religious practice, rather than “mere neutrality with regard to religious practices.” Therefore, in an 8-1 decision, the Court reversed the Tenth Circuit’s grant of summary judgment, and remanded the case for a judgment in accord with its ruling.
-slip op. at 4.