Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fourth Circuit recently affirmed a U.S. District Court’s denial of three post-verdict motions brought by an employer in an EEOC religious discrimination case alleging a failure to accommodate an employee’s Anti-Christ fears. The case is an interesting read for any employer involved in religious discrimination issues.
Most religious accommodation lawsuits brought by the EEOC against employers concern mainstream religions. But when the EEOC successfully sues an employer for failing to accommodate an employee’s Anti-Christ fears, employers need to pay attention, especially when that cases involves a jury verdict awarding over $586,000 in total damages (as we blogged about here).
In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., No. 16-1230, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10385 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), the EEOC alleged that the defendants (“Consol”) refused to provide an employee with a religious accommodation by subjecting him to a biometric hand scanner for purposes of clocking in and out of work. The employee believed the hand scanner was used to identify and collect personal information that would be used by the Christian Anti-Christ, as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, to identify followers with the “mark of the beast.” Following a jury verdict in favor of the EEOC, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia denied Consol’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59. Following the employer’s appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
With the Fourth Circuit affirming the District Court’s ruling after an eyebrow-raising EEOC jury trial victory, it behooves the interests of employers to consider any and all religious accommodation requests.
In the summer of 2012, Consol implemented a biometric hand-scanner system at the mine where the employee worked, in order to better monitor attendance and work hours. Id. at *4. The scanner system required each employee checking in or out of a shift to scan his or her right hand; the shape of the right hand was then linked to the worker’s unique personnel number. While Consol implemented the scanner to produce more efficient and accurate time reporting, the employee alleged it presented a threat to his core religious commitments.
As the employee consistently and unsuccessfully sought an accommodation that would preclude him from having to clock in with the scanner, Consol meanwhile allowed employees with injured hands to scan in using a different keypad system. Id. at *7. Eventually, the employee decided to retire in lieu of using the hand-scanner, and later found a lower paying job. The EEOC thereafter brought an enforcement action against Consol on behalf of the employee, alleging a failure to accommodate religious beliefs and constructive discharge. Id. at *9. After the case ultimately proceeded to trial, the jury found Consol liable for failing to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs. The jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits. Id. at *10-11. Consol then filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), a motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and a motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59. The District Court denied all three post-verdict motions, and Consol appealed. Id. at *11.
The Fourth Circuit’s Decision
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Consol’s three post-verdict motions. First, Consol challenged the denial of its renewed motion for a judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the District Court erred in concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict against it. Consol argued that it did not fail to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs because there was in fact no conflict between his beliefs and its requirement that he use the hand scanner system. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, noting that in both the employee’s request for an accommodation and his trial testimony, the employee carefully and clearly laid out his religious objection to use of the scanner system. Id. at *13.
Next, regarding the District Court’s denial of its motion for a new trial under Rule 59, Consol raised a handful of objections that primarily related to the District Court’s exclusion of evidence and various issues related to jury instructions. Id. at *20. The Fourth Circuit noted that it would “ respect the [D]istrict [C]ourt’s decision absent an abuse of discretion, and will disturb that judgment only in the most exceptional circumstances.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Further, it opined that, “[w]hen, as here, a new trial is sought based on purported evidentiary errors by the district court, a verdict may be set aside only if an error is so grievous as to have rendered the entire trial unfair.” Id. Applying this standard, the Fourth Circuit found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion. Regarding the jury instructions, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court properly found that Consol failed to show any prejudice arising from any of the instructions at issue. Id. at *26.
Finally, both parties cross-appealed the District Court’s rulings on lost wages and punitive damages. The Fourth Circuit rejected Consol’s argument that the employee failed to adequately mitigate his damages by accepting a lower paying job, noting that whether a worker acted reasonably in accepting particular employment is preeminently a question of fact, and that it would not second-guess the District Court. The Fourth Circuit also rejected the EEOC’s cross-appeal regarding punitive damages, holding that the district court did not err in concluding that the EEOC’s evidence fell short of allowing for a determination that Consol’s Title VII violation was the result of the kind of “reckless indifference” necessary to support an award of punitive damages. Id. at *34. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Consol’s three post-verdict motions.
Implications For Employer
While it makes sense from a practical standpoint for employers to foster a work environment that is respectful of its employees’ religious beliefs, this ruling demonstrates that employers should also be tolerant of their employees’ religious accommodation requests for legal and financial reasons. And although many employers will likely never encounter an employee requesting a religious accommodation to cope with his or her fear of the Anti-Christ, they nonetheless must seriously entertain any and all religious accommodation requests. Equipped with an Appellate Court affirmation of its jury trial verdict, the EEOC may very well likely “smell blood” in the sea of religious discrimination charges in its backlog. As such, the best practice for employers is to take a respectful and thoughtful approach to religious accommodation requests to avoid potential EEOC litigation and sometimes unforgiving juries.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.