Ithaca, NY, November 6, 2015 – Two recent holdings by the U.S. Supreme Court have been hailed as "victories" for employees seeking personal accommodations under civil rights law. However, a new analysis from the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations (CIHLER) finds little real change—along with considerable confusion—regarding the Court's actual holding. The analysis, "The United States Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Employees in the Young and Abercrombie Cases: What Do They Really Hold?," is written by David Sherwyn and David B. Ritter. Sherwyn is the John and Melissa Ceriale Professor of Hospitality Human Resources, professor of law at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, and CIHLER director. Ritter is a partner in the Chicago office of Barnes & Thornburg. Published in association with the Center for Hospitality Research, Sherwyn and Ritter's analysis is available at no charge.
"What we see here is that although the Court did disturb a long-standing precedent in one case, there is no real expansion in the scope of accommodations required for pregnant employees or for employees' religious observances," Sherwyn noted. "That said, the Court was crystal clear that employers cannot discriminate in hiring based on the expectation that an employee might request a religious accommodation."
The decisions in question are Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., and E.E.O.C. v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. In the Young case, the Court disturbed precedent by essentially requiring that the facts of each pregnancy accommodation situation must be tried under a challenging new standard. In the Abercrombie case, the Court did not change the precedent regarding the extent to which an employer should go to accommodate a religious belief, but affirmed the civil rights principle that an employer cannot discriminate in a hiring decision based on suppositions regarding a prospective employee's religious observances. However, Ritter and Sherwyn note an interesting question yet to be resolved in cases of religious accommodation, namely, whether the burden of proof rests on the employer or employee. This is an important point, since the party bearing the burden of proof may find it difficult to win its case.