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Timing of Failure to Accommodate Religious Belief Allows Bias Claim to Go Forward

3/27/17

By: Paul H. Derrick

It will be for a jury to decide whether a North Carolina caterer acted unlawfully when it told a newly-hired delivery driver to remove his religious head covering, then terminated him the very next day. In denying the company’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Louise Flanagan, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said that the timing of the events could create at least a reasonable inference that the worker’s need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the termination decision. (EEOC v. Triangle Catering, LLC)

Although the driver claimed that his Rastafarian religion requires him to always wear a head covering, a hat that he refers to as a “crown,” he admittedly did not wear it to his interview for the job. On his second day at work, however, he wore the hat and was told by one of the company’s owners to remove it. After explaining the crown’s religious purpose, he was sent home for the day. He was terminated the next day, and his termination letter listed the “hat situation” as the reason for his discharge.

The court did note that it would be up to a jury to decide whether the driver’s purported religious beliefs about the hat were sincere – a requirement if he hopes to ultimately prevail at trial – particularly since he admitted that he did not wear the hat to his job interview. The judge also ruled that a jury would also have to evaluate the veracity of the employer’s assertion that accommodating the driver’s religious practice would violate applicable health codes and regulations and, therefore, constitute an undue hardship.

Whether this case actually goes to trial or is settled along the way, it serves as a reminder that adverse employment action coming on the heels of protected activity can often give rise to a meritorious retaliation claim. Employers should diligently create a trail of accurate documentation that paints a clear picture of what took place. They should also consult counsel before taking adverse action against an employee who has, or appears to have, engaged in arguably protected conduct.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paul Derrick at [email protected].