The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a former bus driver who alleged that he was fired after his employer refused his request for a religious accommodation so that he could take Sundays off.
The plaintiff worked for New Jersey Transit (“NJ Transit”) as a part-time bus driver. During his employment, the plaintiff was a member of a union that was party to a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with NJ Transit. The CBA contained a provision whereby bus drivers choose their work schedules based on seniority.
In December 2007, NJ Transit offered the plaintiff a full-time driver position. During his first month as a full-time driver, the plaintiff was able to schedule Sundays off so that he could observe his Sunday Sabbath. In February, however, another full-time driver with higher seniority returned to work, which left the plaintiff unable to schedule Sundays off. The plaintiff missed work on two consecutive Sundays. NJ Transit categorized both absences as “without leave” because he failed to provide NJ Transit advanced notice.
The CBA provides that as a result of one driver absence without leave (“AWOL”), NJ Transit will suspend the driver for five days and issue a final warning. After a second AWOL, NJ Transit will terminate the employee.
Because NJ Transit did not have time to hold a hearing between the first two AWOLs, it combined them into one discipline and suspended the plaintiff for five days. Following his suspension, he still did not report to work as scheduled on Sundays but notified NJ Transit in advance. These absences were treated differently under the CBA. However, in March 2008, the plaintiff again failed to notify NJ Transit of a Sunday absence, and NJ Transit terminated his employment.
The plaintiff grieved his termination under the CBA. During the grievance process, NJ Transit offered to reinstate him to his former part-time position, which did not require working on Sundays, but the plaintiff refused. NJ Transit later offered to reinstate the plaintiff to his full-time position, but he repeatedly failed to report to a required medical screening in order to return to work. Accordingly, NJ Transit discharged him for his failure to appear at the medical screening.
The plaintiff filed suit, alleging that NJ Transit failed to provide him a reasonable accommodation for his religion and terminated him because of his religious beliefs. The District Court granted summary judgment to NJ Transit, finding that the requested accommodation was unreasonable because it would impose an “undue hardship” on NJ Transit.
According to the District Court, “[u]ndue hardship is not a difficult threshold to satisfy; ‘[a]n accommodation constitutes an ‘undue hardship’ if it would impose more than a de minimis cost on the employer.’” The District Court found that the plaintiff’s accommodation request would have imposed more than a de minimis cost on NJ Transit because it would have required the employer to violate the CBA and give work to the plaintiff that should have gone to more senior drivers.
The plaintiff appealed, but the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, noting that NJ Transit demonstrated good faith in offering to return the plaintiff to his part-time position, rather than maintaining his termination after three AWOLs, which reflected an effort to accommodate his beliefs. In the end, the plaintiff could not avoid the fact that his termination resulted from his multiple AWOLs and his failure to report to a required medical screening and not his religious beliefs.