Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

PETITIONER: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
RESPONDENT: Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.
LOCATION: Abercrombie Kids store, Woodland Hills Mall

DOCKET NO.: 14-86
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 575 US (2015)
GRANTED: Oct 02, 2014
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 01, 2015

ADVOCATES:
Ian H. Gershengorn - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Shay Dvoretzky - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (Abercrombie) is a national chain of clothing stores that requires its employees to comply with a "Look Policy" that reflects the store's style and forbids black clothing and caps, though the meaning of the term cap is not defined in the policy. If a question arises about the Look Policy during the interview or an applicant requests a deviation, the interviewer is instructed to contact the corporate Human Resources department, which will determine whether or not an accommodation will be granted.

In 2008, Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, applied for a position at an Abercrombie store. She wore a headscarf, or hijab, every day, and did so in her interview. Elauf did not mention her headscarf during her interview and did not indicate that she would need an accommodation from the Look Policy. Her interviewer likewise did not mention the headscarf, though she contacted her district manager, who told her to lower Elauf's rating on the appearance section of the application, which lowered her overall score and prevented her from being hired.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Abercrombie on Elauf's behalf and claimed that the company had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by refusing to hire Elauf because of her headscarf. Abercrombie argued that Elauf had a duty to inform the interviewer that she required an accommodation from the Look Policy and that the headscarf was not the expression of a sincerely held religious belief. The district court granted summary judgment for the EEOC. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed and held that summary judgment should have been granted in favor of Abercrombie because there is no genuine issue of fact that Elauf did not notify her interviewer that she had a conflict with the Look Policy.

Question

Can an employer be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for refusing to hire an applicant based on a religious observance or practice if the employer did not have direct knowledge that a religious accommodation was required?

Media for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 2015 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 01, 2015 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in Case 14-86, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch.

Antonin Scalia:

This is really easy.

The case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from failing to hire an employee because of the employee's religious practice.

This case requires us to determine whether an employer must have actual knowledge of a prospective employee's need for an accommodation -- for an accommodation to the religious practice in order to violate this provision.

Samantha Elauf is a practicing Muslim, who in accordance with her understanding of her religious obligations, wears a headscarf.

She sought a position as a retail employee with respondent Abercrombie & Fitch Stores.

Abercrombie & Fitch maintains a dress policy, what it calls a dress policy, for all retail employees, which, among other things, prohibits floor employees from wearing “caps.”

An Abercrombie & Fitch manager determined that the corporation's dress policy did not permit Elauf to wear her headscarf while on duty.

Though there is some dispute about the degree of certainty Abercrombie's employees had regarding the religious nature of Elauf's practice, they at least suspected that she wore the headscarf for a religious reason.

Abercrombie acknowledges that it did not hire Elauf because of noncompliance with the store's dress policy.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, petitioner here, sued on Elauf's behalf and the District Court granted the EEOC summary judgment on Abercrombie's liability.

The Tenth Circuit reversed.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that when an employee's religious obligation requires an accommodation from an employer, the employer cannot be liable under Title VII until the employee provides actual notice of the need for an accommodation.

Since the Tenth Circuit concluded that Elauf did not provide this actual notice, it granted summary judgment instead to Abercrombie.

We reverse the Tenth Circuit's judgment.

The Tenth Circuit's analysis confuses two concepts: knowledge and motive.

As relevant here, Title VII provides that an employer may not take -- number one, take an adverse action; two, because of; three, an employee's religion, which includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to a religious observance or practice.

The keywords in this case are "because of."

They typically in part, but for causation, but Title VII expressly relaxes this standard to include situations where a protected characteristic is a “motivating factor.”

An employee's actual religious practice may not be a motivating factor in an employer's adverse employment decision.

Abercrombie asks that we accept as a condition of liability that the employer have actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation, but the statute does not provide for a knowledge requirement, and we lack the power to engraft one.

Title VII forbids adverse employment decisions made with a forbidden motive, whether this motive derives from actual knowledge, a well-founded suspicion, or merely a hunch.

We are not presented here with the question whether Title VII imposes liability where an employer has no idea that the practice or suspected practice is a religious one, and we do not decide that question.

Here the employer at least suspected that the practice was a religious one.

Its refusal to hire was therefore motivated by the desire to avoid accommodating that practice and that is enough.

While sure knowledge of a religious practice or an actual request for accommodation may make it easier to infer a prohibited motive, neither is a necessary condition of liability.

Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.