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Employers not required to guarantee employees will never be scheduled on religious Sabbaths

2.13.2019

In a recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, Patterson v. Walgreen Co., the court affirmed judgment in favor of Walgreens after it fired Patterson for refusing to accept reasonable accommodations for his religious beliefs. Patterson sued Walgreens for religious discrimination, failure to accommodate religious practices, and retaliation. The district court then granted Walgreens summary judgment on all counts, and Patterson appealed.

Patterson worked as a customer care representative in a Walgreens’ call center that operated seven days per week. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Patterson’s religious beliefs prohibited him from working during his Sabbath, which was sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. When he was hired, Patterson told Walgreens he would not be available to work during his Sabbath, and Walgreens initially accommodated his request. Patterson eventually was promoted to a training instructor role. To work around his religious beliefs, his supervisor agreed to schedule regular training classes between Sunday and Thursday. Sometimes, however, business needs required emergency training Friday nights or Saturdays. Patterson’s supervisor allowed him to swap shifts with other employees when he was assigned a training class during his Sabbath. Patterson swapped shifts on several occasions. There were times, however, where Patterson’s scheduling requests could not be accommodated due to business demands.

In one particular emergency training conflict, Patterson’s supervisor told him he would have to come up with a solution, meaning he would need to find someone to cover the session for him if he wanted to avoid working on Saturday. Patterson could not find anyone to cover the training for him, so he simply did not show up for work, and the training was delayed and had to be rescheduled. Later, Patterson asked if he would be guaranteed that he would never have to work on his Sabbath, and he was told there could be no guarantee. Due to Patterson’s refusal to work on his Sabbath and his refusal to look for another position at Walgreens that would make it easier to accommodate his unavailability, he was suspended and then terminated because Walgreens could not rely on him if an urgent business need arose.

The district court ruled: (1) Walgreens had reasonably accommodated Patterson’s religious beliefs by permitting him to swap shifts with other employees when his scheduled shifts conflicted with the Sabbath and by offering him the possibility of transferring to other positions within Walgreens that would make it easier for him to swap shifts when needed; and (2) Walgreens would suffer an undue hardship if required to guarantee Patterson never had to work during Sabbath hours given Walgreens’ shifting and urgent business needs.

The court of appeals ruled Walgreens legally terminated Patterson because it offered him reasonable accommodations that he either failed to take advantage of or refused to consider, and that the accommodation he insisted on would have posed an undue hardship. Walgreens met its obligations under Title VII by allowing Patterson to arrange a schedule swap with other employees when they were willing to do so. Walgreens was not required to ensure Patterson was able to swap his shift, nor was it required to order another employee to work in his place. Because Patterson’s discrimination and retaliation claims were bound up with his accommodation claim, the court of appeals also held the district court also properly ruled in favor of Walgreens on those claims.

Patterson was certainly a win for employers, but the plaintiff has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision. In the meantime, the case provides a reminder of employers’ obligations to accommodate religious beliefs while also establishing some boundaries beyond which those accommodations become unreasonable. Employers should continue to carefully consider each religious accommodation request on a case-by-case basis and fully document the analysis of whether or not an accommodation will be granted.

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