By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik
Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC religious discrimination case, a federal court found that “Onionhead” was a religion for purposes of Title VII. The court also found that the EEOC did not fail to meet its Title VII pre-suit duties when it added to its lawsuit seven additional claimants that it discovered during its investigation of charges brought by three former employees of the company that was accused of religious discrimination.
While most religious discrimination claims brought by the EEOC involve mainstream religions, uncommon spiritual belief programs may still be afforded protection under Title VII so long as they meet certain legal requirements. In EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., No. 14-CV-03673 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2016), the EEOC brought an action alleging an employer (“CCG”) discriminated against a group of former employees on the basis of religion by based on concepts known as “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness.” Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the discrete issue of whether these beliefs constituted a religion, while granting in part and denying in part CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to several other claims. Most relevant, the Court denied CCG’s motion for summary judgment regarding the EEOC’s late addition of seven claimants that it discovered during its investigation of the three original charges of discrimination.
This ruling puts employers on notice that they must exercise extreme caution regarding spiritual beliefs in the workplace, even if the beliefs are not derived from a mainstream religion. Further, it illustrates that employers have an uphill battle when challenging the EEOC’s pre-suit investigations as courts will not closely scrutinize such efforts.
CCG is small wholesale company that provides discount medical plans. Beginning around 2007, CCG executives determined that their corporate culture was deteriorating. To fix this issue, CCG hired its CEO’s aunt, who had developed a program called Onionhead that CCG began to utilize in its workplace. CCG described Onionhead as a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool, while plaintiffs characterized it as a system of religious beliefs and practices. Although Onionhead was initially geared towards children, CCG expanded the program to apply it to adults, and it further became known as “Harnessing Happiness.”
The claimant employees alleged that Onionhead and Harnessing Happiness required to them do things like use candles instead of lights to prevent demons from entering the workplace; conduct chants and prayers in the workplace; and respond to emails relating to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, and divine destinies. Id. at 7, 11-12. The claimants alleged they were terminated either because they rejected Onionhead’s beliefs or because of their own non-Onionhead religious beliefs, while other employees who followed Onionhead were given less harsh discipline. After three former employees filed charges of discrimination in 2011 and 2012, the EEOC issued a letter of determination on March 13, 2014. After unsuccessful conciliation efforts, the EEOC filed suit on October 9, 2014 on behalf the three employees who filed charges of discrimination and an additional seven employees that it discovered during its investigation. The EEOC subsequently moved for summary judgment as to the specific issue of whether Onionhead was a religion for purposes of Title VII. CCG cross-moved for summary judgment as to several other claims involving religious discrimination.
The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary as to the discrete issue of whether the Onionhead beliefs constituted a religion. After discussing Title VII’s application to religious discrimination, the Court noted that the former employees asserted claims under a variety of theories, including disparate treatment, hostile work environment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation. Id. at 15. First, the Court sought to determine what constitutes a religious belief under Title VII. Rejecting CCG’s argument that a narrow definition should apply, the Court opined that to determine whether a given set of beliefs constitutes a religion for purposes of Title VII, “courts frequently evaluate: (1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held and (2) whether they are, in [the believer’s] own scheme of things, religious.” Id. at 23 (quoting Patrick v. LeFevre, 745 F.2d 153, 157 (2d Cir. 1984)).
Applying the Patrick framework here, the Court found that Onionhead qualified as a religion for purposes of Title VII. Id. at 31-32. Addressing the first prong, whether the beliefs were sincerely held, the Court noted that, “a reasonable jury could find that by inviting [the CEO’s aunt] into the workplace, paying her to meet and conduct workshops, authorizing her to speak to employees about matters related to their personal lives, disseminating Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness material and directing employees to attend group and individual meetings with [his aunt], [the CEO] and his upper management held sincere beliefs in Onionhead and Harnessing Happiness.” Id. at 35-36. As to the second prong, which contemplates whether the nature of the beliefs qualifies as religious, the Court concluded that the beliefs were religious within the meaning of Title VII. Id. at 36. In reaching this conclusion, the Court discussed the emails about God, spirituality, Satan, divine destinies, etc.; noted how the CEO’s aunt referred to herself as a “spiritual advisor”; cited claimants’ testimony that they were told to pray in the workplace; and quoted numerous Onionhead publications. Id. at 36-41. Accordingly, the Court found that Onionhead was a religion for purposes of Title VII. Id. at 43.
Next, the Court addressed CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to the individual claims asserted by claimants, which alleged that the EEOC failed to fulfill its Title VII pre-suit investigation, reasonable cause determination, and conciliation requirements for several claimants. Id. at 43-45. Noting that, “[c]ourts have permitted the EEOC to add new claimants identified during discovery even when the EEOC is asserting claims under Section 706 of Title VII,” the Court held that given “the circumstances present in the instant case, the EEOC was not precluded from identifying new claimants (whose claims were effectively identical to the claims of the pre-existing claimants) after filing this action.” Id. at 46-47. In doing so, the Court rejected CCG’s reliance on EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited Inc., 679 F.3d 657, 674 (8th Cir. 2012), and distinguished on the grounds that “[t]he EEOC’s attempt in CRST to add 67 claimants to an EEOC action filed two years earlier and naming a single individual is a far cry from the situation presented in this action, where the EEOC’s investigation undisputedly encompassed seven of the ten claimants and the additional three claimants’ allegations arise out of the same alleged course of conduct, in the same office, by the same individuals, and during a time period already covered by the charges in the initial complaint.” Id. at 48-49. Thus, citing the narrow scope of review courts are permitted when reviewing the sufficiency of EEOC investigations, the Court denied CCG’s request to dismiss the late-discovered claimants.
The Court also discussed at great length CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to multiple reverse discrimination claims. The Court denied CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to eight claimants’ reverse discrimination claims and all claimants’ hostile work environment claims premised on reverse religious discrimination. Id. at 101. Further, the Court denied CCG’s motion for summary judgment with respect to one claimant’s disparate treatment and retaliation claims premised on her Catholicism, but granted CCG’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the same claimant’s hostile work environment and failure to accommodate claims. Id. at 102. Finally, the Court granted CCG’s motion for summary judgment against all other claimants on their claims that they suffered discrimination based on claimants’ religious beliefs or lack thereof. Id. at 102.
Implications For Employers
Whether or not this blog post has caused you to consider a conversion to Onionhead, the implications from this ruling are crucial for employers in two regards. First, the finding that Onionhead is a religion should put employers on notice that when considering beliefs claimed by an employee and programs implemented by an employer, courts can and will utilize an expansive definition of what constitutes a “religious belief” for purposes of Title VII discrimination litigation. Second, employers can expect the EEOC to use this ruling to aggressively seek to expand its lawsuits beyond the original complaining employees and try to include any similarly aggrieved employees it uncovers during investigations. Accordingly, the twofold impact of this ruling should alert employers to expect more aggressive religious discrimination litigation from the EEOC, who will also seek to expand the size of its lawsuits given that its investigations are subject to limited judicial scrutiny.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.