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American Retailer Found in Violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for Discriminating based on Religion

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.
No. 14–86 (Supreme Court of the United States, June 1, 2015)

by Nida Kanwal
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-86_p86b.pdf

In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. No. 14–86 (Supreme Court of the United States, June 1, 2015) Defendant corporation, Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., was found guilty of discriminating against the Plaintiff, Samantha Elauf. The Defendant adhered to a “look” policy, which prohibited employees from wearing black clothing and caps. In 2008, the Plaintiff, a woman who wears a headscarf in accordance with her religious beliefs, applied for a job at the Defendant corporation. The interviewer found the Plaintiff to be qualified for hire based on her interview and application. However, the interviewer reached out to a district manager to clarify whether the head scarf would be banned under the corporation’s “look” policy. The interviewer also informed the manager that she believed the headscarf was worn for religious reasons. The district manager indicated that the headscarf would violate the “look” policy and thus instructed the interviewer to not hire the applicant. Plaintiff was never made aware of this policy and was declined a position with the employer.

Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the EEOC filed suit against Defendant. Defendant claimed the “look” policy was not religiously discriminatory because the ban applied to all types of head coverings. The Defendant also claimed that they were not made aware of a reasonable accommodation the Plaintiff would require because she did not ask for any accommodations.

It is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for an employer to discriminate against an employee or applicant based on that employee’s or applicant’s protected status. These protected statuses include race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. An employer violates the law if he fails to accommodate an employee’s or applicant’s religious practice by making that person’s religious practice, confirmed or not, a factor in the employer’s decision. Further, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 an employer must provide “reasonable accommodation without undue hardship.” This Court addressed whether that reasonable accommodation must be provided even if an applicant or employee does not request such accommodation.

The Court held that for a plaintiff to prevail in a disparate-treatment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an applicant must show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. The applicant is not required to show that the employer actually knew of the applicant’s need. Further, the employer could be guilty of violating the law “even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” Thus, motive and knowledge are found to be separate and distinct concepts.

The district court held in favor of the EEOC. The Tenth Circuit reversed and found summary judgment should have been granted in favor of Defendant corporation because the Plaintiff did not raise that she needed a reasonable accommodation for her religious practice and thus, Defendant did not have actual knowledge of Plaintiff’s need for an accommodation. In the 8-1 opinion, delivered by Justice Scalia in which Roberts, C. J., Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined, the Court reversed and remanded the Tenth Circuit decision.


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